Nawl Weaving in Lebanon

Thread by thread, fine abayas and decorative wall hangings are still made by weavers in Lebanon’s historical silk village.

 

The narrow cobblestone streets in the old souk of Zouk Mikael, lined on both sides with old stone houses, are quiet. There is only one thing that breaks the silence: a stream of soft music, coming out from one of the doors. Inside is the workshop of Salim Saade, one of Lebanon’s last remaining nawl weavers.

‘I like to listen to music when I work. It gives me some company, because I’m alone in here,’ says Saade.

He is seated on a wooden plank, serving as the seat of the large loom that takes up most of the space in the workshop. The ceiling is high and the walls are lined with heavy, wooden cupboards. All are filled with boxes of yarn in different colours – brown, turquoise, honey. Posters of icons hang next to photographs of a much younger Saade, holding up various items of his weaving work.

 

 

Salim Saade by the loom in his small workshop in Zouk Mikael, in the mountains north of Beirut

Photographs remind of Saade’s long profession as a nawl weaver

‘See the visitor in that picture? She came here from Armenia. And that’s Miss Norway over there,’ he says, pointing to a photograph of himself and a former Scandinavian beauty queen.

His hands are resting on the loom, where a large panorama of the street outside is slowly taking form. There are houses, woven in brown and beige, and a sky in bright blue. Saade weaves with concentration, alternating threads in brown and white silk to create detailed window frames on the buildings.

This particular piece was ordered from the municipality of Zouk Mikael, to be hung on the walls of their offices. The small mountainside town, just north of Beirut, was once the weaving centre of Lebanon. In the Ottoman era, emirs like Fakhreddine and Beshir Chehab encouraged the craft, and artisan work had a prominent standing. Weaving was always closely tied to Lebanon’s silk industry, which long served as the country’s economic backbone, reaching its peak in the 19th century. The first bank came to Lebanon in order to facilitate its silk export, and Beirut was expanded as a port city much in order to welcome ships trading in silk.

‘I mainly weave with silk. The piece I’m doing now for the municipality is entirely made from silk. But it’s imported from Lyon, we don’t produce silk here in Lebanon any more,’ says Saade.

 

Saade uses mainly silk from Lyon in France; Lebanon was historically a centre for silk, but the industry doesn’t exist today

Resolutely, using the wooden beater, the weft is beaten into place

Saade weaves a replica of the small market street outside his workshop, for the municipality in Zouk Mikael

He also uses wool, for thicker rugs and pillows – or traditional coats, meant for the cold winters of Lebanon’s mountains. Across the street from his workshop is a small showroom, filled with pieces of his work. Abayas in finely woven silk and wool hang next to coats with decorative linings in golden or silver metallic. There are scarves and hand-woven shoes, waiting to get leather soles attached. During the heyday of Lebanese weaving, brides would come to Zouk Mikael to get their jhaz, full trousseau, for their weddings. Weavers were busy, and created their own elaborate patterns and models.

Saade stands next to a table where two flags lay next to each other: Lebanon’s cedar tree emblem, and Italy’s simple tricolour. Both are woven with perfection, with exact lines and strong colours. 

‘I got an order from someone in Italy once, so I made two flags and saved one for myself,’ he says.
He crosses the street and walks back to the workshop, returning to the loom. He comes every day to weave in the morning, then spends the afternoons with friends who come by to play backgammon. A board is set up on a small table, surrounded by plastic chairs with cushions.

Saade holds up a piece of 5ine silk tablecloth 5562 The picturesque street leading through Zouk Mikael’s old market; Saade crosses it to return to his loom from the showroom on the opposite side

The picturesque street leading through Zouk Mikael’s old market; Saade crosses it to return to his loom from the showroom on the opposite side

In the afternoons, Saade’s friends often come by to play backgammon and converse


The wall decoration for the municipality will be ready after five months of work. Having spent all of his life as a weaver, Saade masters the craft fully – and he knows that the biggest investment needed is time. He first learned weaving as a young boy; like most crafts, nawl is passed down from generation to generation. But after his father passed away, he’s been alone in the workshop. The other loom is disassembled, leaning quietly against the wall.

‘It’s for my son. He learned weaving and likes it very much. But he found a well-paying job abroad, he’s not likely to become a weaver,’ says Saade. Weaving dates back to the early Stone Ages, when humans first began interlacing material together to create shelters and dwellings – probably inspired by techniques from nature, like birds’ nests and spider webs. The craft can be found across all civilisations, with reappearing symbols and patterns. The tree of life for instance, symbolising the eternal flow of human life, figures in weavings by Scandinavians, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Native Americans.

Craftspeople on the eastern Mediterranean shores were first to develop metallic yarn, and the technique of dyeing with murex, a marine mollusc creating a bright purple colour. In the 20th century, looms could be found all over Lebanon, both in artisan workshops and family homes. But weaving took a hard hit in the civil war, like other crafts. Saade says that things never really recovered after that.

‘There used to be haraket, movement, here. We would get orders, tourists came from abroad. Nowadays, it’s very slow.’

 

Left: Boxes with threads and yarn stacked on the shelves in Saade’s workshop
Right: Multi coloured silk yarn in Saade’s workshop



Using a multitude of colours, Saade paints a woven portrait of Zouk Mikael’s souk

He returns to his careful weaving, interlacing threads of silk – in sets of four, always, to give the right texture – with the vertical warp. He stretches to turn down the volume on the radio – with a scratch, the music disappears entirely. The silence is broken only by a buzzing fridge in a corner, and the distinct sound of Saade’s wooden beater, rhythmically beating the colourful threads into place.

Writer: Jenny Gustafsson
Photographer: Alia Haju

 

 Saade at his loom

 

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