By Tim Anderson
In Kenya, the most common and most useful piece of
furniture is the rot- and bedbug-resistant Swahili bed.
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
102 Make: Volume 13
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.
Tim Anderson ( mit.edu/robot) is the founder of Z Corp. See a
hundred more of his projects at instructables.com.