“It looks like the recordings of a seismograph,” says Emma Wingfield, describing the emergence of pattern when ikat-dyed yarn is woven into fabric. “The threads are pulled in varying directions, which makes for a motif that’s always a little different, no two ever the same.”
Emma is one part of Five|Six Textiles, a collaborative venture with master weavers in the artisanal village of Waraniéné in Ivory Coast. Though not exclusively ikat, many of Five|Six’s textiles are made from this distinctive cloth by virtue of the Dyula community who make them – (the Dyula, a Mandé word meaning “merchant”, are artisanal traders who, traditionally, specialise in ikat).
It seems incongruous at first to compare something so quintessentially handmade as a piece of ikat cloth with a seismograph. But, on reflection, it is a fitting comparison; like the machine that records earthquakes, weaving ikat-dyed yarn on a loom sees man putting order on, or making sense of, something naturally random. And, insists Emma, there is incredible precision involved in the craft – “an amazing knowledge of mathematics and design” – which the untrained eye can easily overlook.
Ikat fabric is woven from yarn coloured by resist-dyeing, a process in which some of the thread is wrapped, protecting it from the dye prior to being woven. The resulting cloth is determined as much by the yarn – each strand unique – as the skill of he who weaves it (in this part of Africa, Emma says, weaving is generally a male profession). “Ultimately, the weaver trains and builds their design knowledge verbally and mentally,” she says, so that the visuals emerge “almost unconsciously – they don’t record the patterns or draw them, so the motifs that are woven are always going to display some individuality.”
Emma runs Five|Six alongside her academic work; this year, she will complete a PhD in Visual Arts at Goldsmiths, University of London, looking at the market dynamics of handwoven cloth across the global south, but with particular focus on Waraniéné. Setting up a business hadn’t been part of her plan. As a museum researcher specialising in West African Archaeology at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, she had the opportunity to visit Cote d’Ivoire. In Waraniéné, she met with a group of Dyula weavers who expressed an interest in selling their textiles internationally; she discussed the idea back in the US with her friend, Laine Henry, a clothing designer who wanted to leave fast fashion behind.
Together, they decided to join forces with the weavers, and Emma’s interest in Waraniéné became twofold: academic, yes, but also participatory, helping the weavers revitalise their craft into a business. Emma is clear, however, that she and Laine were there to support the weavers, not the other way round. “We didn’t want to be two American women who don’t weave, looking after the business side of things for a group of very talented artisans in Ivory Coast,” she says, implying an uneasiness with the dynamic between African artisans and the West historically. “It felt very wrong to be ascribing these colonial ideas about design and trade to something that’s been around much longer than any colonisers were,” she says.
“We wanted to find a business model that fitted us,” she goes on, “because it was important to us that the weavers have control too; they are our co-founders, and we work consultatively with them.” There’s Vali Coulibaly, the secretary of the weaving collective in Waraniéné; Clément, the head of operations; and Amara, one of Five|Six’s lead ikat weavers, to name just a few.
The insight that Emma has acquired through setting up Five|Six has in turn fed into her research. She talks about Western notions of authenticity – the perception of things created in the contemporary era as not being ‘authentic’. “Often, the Global North portrays artisans from the Global South as tradition-bound craftspeople,” she says, “but I found this so wrong and counter to the people we were working with. These industries are anything but immutable. How artisans use and create pattern is, of course, going to be inspired by contemporary culture.”
She started talking to some of the weavers about the history of weaving in Waraniéné since the Millennium – about how weaving had changed, how they train young people in the craft, the motifs and how they’re developed. In this part of Africa, she says, weaving is passed down from a father to his son, if he shows an interest. The profession is waning because weavers’ offspring increasingly move to the city for university, or even abroad. To address concerns about the trade suffering, Five|Six has launched a project, into which it funnels ten percent of its profits to invest in preserving the industry by training new young people in the craft.
At its inception, Five|Six comprised seven master weavers in Warienene, but has now grown to 22. The company is named after the cloth found in this pocket of west Africa – comprising not just Ivory Coast, but Sierra Leone and Mali, too – “the land of five and six stripes”, where individual strips of ikat were made up of stripes totalling the eponymous five or six. These strips of ikat cloth are then sewn together, selvedge to selvedge, as they are on the placemats produced for TOAST.
True to Five|Six’s goal to celebrate both traditional and modern Dyula weaving patterns, these placemats use a motif called Cari Cari, “a contemporary development of a small 20th century motif,” says Emma, “you see it as little details on older cloth, which they’ve now made into the whole textile, not a part of it.” In mustard or earthy blue tones with ecru, they are indeed like fabric seismographs, making truly original additions to your dining table.
Interview by Mina Holland.
Campaign image by Jo Metson Scott. All other images courtesy of Five|Six Textiles.
Shop our Cari Cari placemat, which is crafted from hand-dyed and handwoven ikat made by artisans in Waraniéné, a village in northern Ivory Coast. They work in collaboration with Five|Six Textiles, which is committed to preserving traditional strip-weaving techniques.