Petel translates into “little spark” in Pulaar, the native language of Mauritania, where the wild Atlantic coast meets the Saharan dunes of West Africa. Petal Design is a social enterprise which creates beautiful home decor, crafted on rugged African looms. In 2000, founder Julie Wagne, fell in love with her husband Ibrahima’s native country and since her first visit, has been brainstorming how to give back in a meaningful way. With a history background, she has been longing to connect the art of Africa to the people in the U.S. With Ibrahima’s encouragement, the idea to create Petal Design was born.
HAND/EYE: What first drew you to the work of Fulani weavers?
Julie Wagne: Ibrahima and I both have a relationship with some of the Fulani weavers in Mauritania, in the village of Boghe where he grew up. Ibrahima’s mother gifted me one of the Fulani 'leppi' blankets when we got engaged, as well as when our first daughter was born. I’ve always found the technique (of tying strings to a wooden tree loom) a fascinating and meticulously wonderful way to create something gorgeous out of nothing. The textiles are unique to the Fulani tribe, and any Fulani person would immediately recognize them as integral to their cultural heritage.
H/E: Can you tell H/E readers a bit about the traditional significance of these Fulani textiles?
JW: The beautiful traditional fabrics represented by Petal are created by the Fulani tribe in West Africa for various ceremonial events. A group of artisans, or MabuuBe, typically produce weavings and pottery, but other groups such as the ironworkers may receive the blessing of the artisan group and create the textiles as well. A leppi is the woven fabric traditional to Mauritania. The production process is time consuming and laborious. The leppi maker, known as the CaNoowo, takes between three to four weeks to craft a complete unit. Each piece is called a woodeere, and is composed of four woven strips sold as a set. Threads of varying colors are attached to a stone on one end with the weaving part, or CaNiirngal, at the opposing end. The CaNoowo, uses a boat shuttle to cris-cross the weft fibers between these horizontal warp threads. This repeated movement is tiresome and is part of the reason the younger generation is not willing to learn the trade. Petel believes that an increased appreciation for these textiles in the West will inspire and motivate the younger Fulani generation to learn and perfect the trade. The weavings are part of the ceremonial fabric of the Fulani tribe. In the Fuuta Toro (border of Senegal and Mauritania), they are used as veils for brides, newborn blankets, and, in some instances, to cover a widow’s head. In addition, these textiles are used as decorative accessories by Fulani women, as they are one of the most expensive pieces of fashion.
H/E: Can you explain the significance of the leppi?
JW: The leppi is a representative of the Fulani’s commitment to each other. A mother gifts a blanket (leppi) to her daughter for her marriage. Also, a grandmother gives a piece to the granddaughter/son upon birth, just as my mother gave one to Julie, when our first daughter was born. During these important times in the lives of loved ones, the Fulani people offer three things: leppis, Kola nuts, and milk, which symbolizes their love for the recipient. Of these three items, the only one that passes from one generation to the next, is the leppi. For example, my mother owns a leppi from her great grandmother who was born in the 1800s. It is a symbol of the circle of life, as seen by the Fulani people, her marriage, followed by the birth of child, and then the marriage of that same child later in life.
H/E: How do the women and men divide their tasks when it comes down to producing these textiles?
JW: This manner of dividing tasks in traditional African society is fairly common. Although the women are the only ones who wear the traditional leppi, or woven fabrics, it is the men who are the weavers in this patriarchal society.
H/E What do you find most fascinating about the work of Fulani weavers?
JW: The work of Fulani weavers has been passed down generation to generation, from fathers to sons. We find it fascinating to see the traditions continue, despite the extreme competition of modern textiles in the marketplace. It is truly an art form, and it still exists today because the weavers have a deep-rooted sense of ritual and respect for the craft.
H/E: What are some of the challenges you face when marketing these traditional textiles?
JW: Part of our challenge in marketing these traditional textiles is getting the hand-woven message across. Many of us have never seen the process in person, and because our clothes and textiles are mostly made in factories, many people don't have a complete understanding for how labor intensive the practice of weaving actually is. Other than that, once consumers see the final product, and the vibrant colors and patterns, the blankets sell themselves.