Monday, October 23, 2017


 Wild Sisal Spinning
A tall native sisal plant, Sanseveria robusta, is still harvested by Rendille and Samburu women in Northern Kenya. This plant easily grows up to eight feet high, but overharvesting for the last thirty-five years in the Ndoto Mountains has greatly reduced its availability and the size to which it grows.  The Samburu/Rendille women near Ngurunit have recently restricted much of their harvest of wild sisal which now grows in abundance only at least a day’s walk from their manyattas. Nomadic Rendille women still come to the mountains after the rains to harvest large quantities of sisal.  The sisal is traditionally used as roofing mats for their nomadic homes. The sisal is also used as string and rope for everyday uses. 
The photos in this article of the women in the forest harvesting the sisal were taken by the women themselves with an instamatic camera I gave them. All the other photos were taken by Laura Lemunyete who lives in Ngurunit much of the year.
The process of harvesting wild sisal usually takes up to a week. Once the women have located the plants, they cut the sisal leaves and an assortment of dried branches from nearby bushes. These sisal leaves and branches are layered in a pit of soil and set on fire. The fire’s heat is regulated by the flowing juices of the sisal leaves.  Once the fire is spent, the fibers are covered with soil and left to cool. The women create several sisal/branch fire pits over the course of a week. At the end of the week, the fibers are unearthed, bundled, and brought down the mountains.
In Ngurunit, a small town, the women take the sisal to their respective homes. The Rendille women either hang bundles of the sisal from trees or rest them on branches or bushes at the foot of the mountains until a lorry is brought to carry the sisal away. The sisal, if put on the ground, will be eaten by termites. 
Spinning of the wild sisal is similar to the spinning of the cultivated sisal in Kenya. The women usually sit or squat on the ground. First they roll half of a fiber bundle on their thigh, in a stroke up from the knee. That twisted bundle is lifted, brought back to the knee, and is placed separate from and in front of the untwisted second half of the bundle. Both halves of the fiber bundle are then rolled toward the woman, away from the knee. In a downward stroke, the two twisted bundles are then put together and rolled away from the woman’s body, creating a string of sisal. In the attached picture, the women are posing for Laura by sitting on a bench. 
Normally, there is not any reason to spin fine string nor to keep soot or ochre off the threads. I was curious how this rather brittle string would weave so I commissioned fine string to be spun. This spinning is only a part time job and as with any traditional craft, it is often difficult to vary the results. Laura brought down sample after sample, which I graded by diameter.  By the end of three years, I finally was able to obtain the fine diameter sisal I had requested. I have used this finer sisal in the Wild Sisal Transparencies section shown in my gallery. I didn’t use the ochre colored sisal and tried to restrict the soot covered sisal. Still, the women store the sisal string in the roof of their houses where it is safe from insects but get smoky. If you carefully smelled one of the wild sisal weavings, you would detect a smoky smell.


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