The Making of Modern Spindle Whorls in Mali.

Spindle Whorls have been used world-wide for thousands of years, originally as tools in the cotton spinning industry. In more recent years they have become much sought after as interesting beads for collectors and students of ancient African history.
Information on their original usage can be found

Modern replicas, in a variety of shapes, but usually with traditional decoration, are often seen in bead markets throughout Africa, with Mali being the country most often associated with modern production. In Djenné, the oldest city in Mali, where many Whorls used to be made, they are known as Kolo in the Bambara language, meaning as strong as ( cow ) bone.
Early examples, many hundreds of years old, but with remarkably well preserved decoration, can still occasionally be found .. proving just how well named and resilient they are.

Despite many previous attempts, it was not until March 2007 that I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to meet one of the present day bead makers and be allowed to record his methods and skills. Despite the addition of one modern additive, I suspect that the basic methods of production have changed very little since the first Whorls were produced.

Whilst bead buying in the Goulanina Market in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, my long time friend Mr Barry introduced me to a shy young lad by the name of Abli .. who, he told me,
was a skilled clay bead maker and a principal supplier of Spindle Whorls to the local markets.

Abli, a member of the ancient Songhai Tribe, spoke no French, but .. during a 3 way conversation with Mr Barry acting as translator middleman .. readily consented to prepare a demonstration for me at his home in the village of Kati, some 13 kilometres outside Bamako. Mr Barry explained that although Abli produced many examples of the traditional spherical and bicone Whorl shapes, he and his family were also experimenting with making alternative shapes on request from the market bead dealers. These were proving to be very popular, especially amongst tourist customers who frequent the market .. valued by them as attractive ornaments and souvenirs, combining traditional African skills with modernity.

Despite his youthful appearance, Abli .. who was actually 23 years old .. had gained considerable expertise in clay handling and knowledge of Whorl-making history, from an elderly master bead-maker in
Mopti. In turn, he had passed on many of these skills to his two sisters, Adja and Isata, who helped  him with the production. Arriving at his home the next day.. in front of an ever increasing audience of interested neighbours .. I was treated to a well planned display of the different processes involved, by this trio of expert young bead makers.

From especially selected sites in the hills surrounding the village of Kati ...

... black clay soil is collected and broken into small pieces.

Using a traditional pestle and mortar and a sieve ...

... the soil is pounded and sieved into a finer and finer particles. Tradition dictates that when possible, broken pieces of old clay pots are added to the mixture .. providing additional strength, both physical and psychological, to the finished articles.

Water, oil and optional amounts of Gum Arabic and Wood Glue, which act as catalysts in accelerate drying and strengthening ( used especially when old pottery is not available ) are gradually added  to the clay soil. Further pounding and manipulation by hand, eventually produces a malleable dark clay .. suitable for moulding into the desired shapes. Despite local temperatures often in the 40 to 50 C degrees range, this clay mix can be successfully stored in airtight plastic bags for later use.