Small islands dot the coast of Kenya near the Somali border. Once there were powerful city-states on these islands. They traded as far as China. They were centers of Islamic learning, and scholars came from far and wide to study here. Now they’re mostly villages surrounded by fortified ruins, located far up winding channels through mangrove swamps.
In most houses, you find only one type of furniture: the Swahili bed. It’s used as a couch, bed, table, and everything else. It’s comfortable and perfect for the hot, humid climate. And it’s quite similar to the Shaker bed once used in the United States.
Step 1. Make the frame.
It takes at least two people to weave a bed, both to get it tight enough and to socialize. The frame is very simple, with horizontal beams mortised into the vertical posts. The tension of the straps holds the frame together. The frames shown here are made from the local mangrove wood, which is very hard and rot-resistant. Mangrove wood exports used to be a major source of wealth for these Swahili city-states.
Step 2. Weave the bed.
The palmetto straps used are a plain flat braid, just like braiding hair but with more strands. I’ve seen 5-, 7-, and 8-strand braids used. Villagers weave these to sell in the markets.
It takes about 400 feet of strap to weave a bed. The end is tied to a leg to start. Then it’s wrapped from one end of the bed to the other, head to foot, about 15 times. Next the cross-weaving starts, threading the web over and under through the long rows.
Step 3. Tighten the bed.
When the weaving is done, the straps are left long to make it easier to tighten the bed. After the web stops stretching, the ends are tied off and cut short.
Step 4. Prevent bedbugs.
I often saw beds left underwater in the mangrove channels, held down by rocks. My local friends told me that salt water kills bedbugs. I wish I’d known that years ago. A friend of mine in the U.S. had a bedbug problem and tried every product on the market without success. Eventually he had to throw out the bed and half his possessions.