by Rachel Hoffman

Wood already touched by fire is not hard to set alight.

     I learned to identify a cotton bush and collect the spongy dense balls out of their lobed pods. I was shown how to feel the seeds with my fingertips, work them to the surface for collecting in a gourd and then coax the fibers apart from one another to comb and align them. I used the wire brush, handled with such grace by the six Fulani women surrounding me and I made the fibers align quietly together. “Yes, yes,” they said. “Yes!” The women sang a praise song, clapping hands and too many rhythms to count, and two of them jumped up to dance. We sat shielded from the West African sun. They were weavers’ wives but dressed in factory-made cloth – one piece wrapped around their waists, another wrapped around their torsos – shoulders bare. They had plaited one another’s hair and most wore earrings, some included a coin or two as ornament and, in combination, it dazzled me: color and sparkle against coffee skin. I’d laid the fibrous creamy cotton cloud in the gourd where the other women placed their newly seeded and combed cotton. I picked up a wood spindle, the size of a long chopstick, smooth and glossy from years in the hands of these women, slipped onto its lower point a whirl – a ceramic sphere the size and weight of a large marble with a hole through it – and I twirled the spindle, weighted at the bottom, with my left hand on my left knee. Spun it like a drill.

     I was able to take a handful of cotton cloud from the gourd, cradle it in my right palm, pull the smallest amount – maybe two or three fibers – with the fingers of the same right hand and simultaneously twist the fibers between fingers and thumb while pulling ever so slightly more into the mix. “Yes!”I wrapped the first two inches of spun fiber around the spindle and pulled the next bit of combed fiber between my fingers. I was spinning thread and winding it around the spindle. I was worthy of their exaltation! “No!” The women wound those first twisted fibers around the spindle in their left hands and spun their spindles to wind-on more of the twist extruded from their right hands. In my hands, the spindle flew off my knee and the whirl popped off the spindle and rolled into a pile of goat droppings. The women sang a different song, loud laughter, until a man’s loud voice from over the wall. The admonition hushed us, but not Rokia’s rush of rude gestures in his direction. She jumped to her feet and pantomimed a man swinging his parts, parading around in circles. Aminata’s expression went from a smile into a silent delirious spasm and she pressed her face into a wadded length of cloth. The hen knows first when dawn arrives but leaves it to the cock to announce.


     Raw cotton is the color of ivory. For all the patterns in a repertoire that would make a weaver proud, all the complicated techniques used to produce colorful cloths of wool and commercial threads, for me a blanket of plain, un-dyed, hand-spun slubby cotton was my absolute favorite. The cello has a timbre close to the human voice and its sound moves us. Plain cotton has a feel or temperature or subliminal smell close to human skin, and is so pleasurable. Cotton indigenous to West Africa has grown wild since the dinosaurs. The seeds may have been borne on the wind from Egypt for its plants produce long-fibered thread. When long fibers are spun together, they overlap to produce a fine, uniform, durable thread. Thread made of shorter fibers pulls apart easily, fraying like sisal. Cotton introduced by Europeans during the eighteenth century is shorter fibered and less durable than the indigenous variety. More importantly, for people living in Mali today, the old cotton that grew wild left nutrients intact in the soil. The European variety grew faster, but it depleted the soil. The Industrial Revolution in full swing, European factories required raw materials. Manufacturers used the fertile Inland Delta region of Mali to plant cotton for French textile mills. To keep the machinery running, they introduced peanuts to harvest for their oil. Peanut oil burns at a hotter temperature than other vegetable oils and so was used to lubricate the engines of mechanized progress. Between cotton and peanuts, the soil deteriorated, with famine – for both humans and livestock – the deadly outcome. It’s why the Sahara expands so easily. Sand swallows worn out soil. 

Drought made cultivation impossible. It killed herds. Wool and cotton – the raw materials of weaving – became scarce. In concept, weaving is simple. It is the act of making one thread – the weft – pass under and over stationary parallel threads – the warp – fixed at a right-angle to the weft. Then, in the other direction, instead of passing over and under, the weft shuttle passes under and over. The question is how to do this without manually lifting one warp thread at a time. There is no written 

4record, but at some point in prehistory, a perceptive person had an insight and understood how to set up a loom. 


     I watched in admiration as Rokia drew the filaments from the combed cotton cloud, pulled the filaments into individual strands, overlapped one strand after another by half its length and twisted as she did so, thereby achieving a tight twist connecting one filament to the next and making a fine thread. Inch after inch, until late that afternoon, the spindle was coiled and had the girth of a healthy papaya. How many yards of finished thread it carried, I could only guess it would be in the hundreds, maybe thousands. Toward dusk, Moussa and Yaya came around to fetch me. “You’re keeping them from their families,” said Moussa. Yaya laughed into his hands, but not really.

About the author: Rachel Hoffman's stories appear in 1966, *82 Review, Raw Art, NUNUM, Wanderlust, and Hot Metal Bridge. Her debut novel, Packer and Jack, was published 2014 by an independent press. A 2017 Fulbright granted Rachel a month's residency at the Writers House in Latvia. She holds a PhD (UCLA) in art history. 'Fibers' is excerpted and condensed from an unpublished book-length memoir of Mali, West Africa.