As I noted in my description on our gallery site here this cloth is something of a mystery piece. It was bought from an Ebira cloth vendor who gave it an Ebira name itogede that indicates the use of bast fibre along with cotton but on closer examination is woven entirely from cotton. The Ebira (previously written Igbirra) live in several locations near the confluence of the rivers Niger and Benue, with the largest group in and around the large town of Okene in Kogi state. Ebira women are known for their weaving and at least until 5 or so years ago it was very common to see women in Okene weaving brightly coloured rayon cloths on the front veranda of their houses throughout Okene. These cloths were sold in the main Okene market every four days and traded widely across Nigeria and beyond.
This tradition of rayon and earlier silk weaving was quite recent, dating back to around the 1930s, according to John Picton (in his article in Textile History: Textiles of Africa, Pasold Foundation, 1980.) Until perhaps the 1970s this rayon style flourished alongside an older tradition of weaving in local hand spun cotton and bast fibres producing a variety of blue and white warp striped cloths for a number of local uses. Picton observed in Okene town at the end of the 1960s that these hand spun cotton blue and white cloths fell into three categories, called ikitipa, itokueta, and itogede. The first two of these consisted of three panels of cloth sewn together, the third made up of four panels. The primary use of both itokueta and the four panel itogede (literally “banana cloth” although in fact the bast fibres came from other plants) was as funerary cloths. They would be hung on the front of the deceased’s house, with the pattern of stripes indicating a male or female burial, and later used as a shroud. In keeping with this use the panels were usually only loosely tacked together rather than fully stitched.
Our cloth is three panels, cotton only not bast fibre, and fully stitched, so it cannot be said to fall within the itogede group. However Picton does discuss cloths in the first group, ikitipa, that were intended for wearing, either by women or by men. Unlike women’s cloths that were hemmed, cloths to be worn by men had a fringe and what Picton called a row of decorative stitching to prevent the cloth unravelling, both features we find here.
In this form, he noted, in is “the antique mode of dress for men in this area” and by the 1960s distinctly outmoded. Nevertheless there are significant differences between our cloth and the examples described by Picton, and those that he collected for the British Museum. The first of these is that ikitipa seems to have been predominantly white, with only limited warp striping in indigo or local brown cotton, whereas our cloth is mainly indigo dyed. More significant and much more unusual though is the grid like pattern of supplementary weft float patterning in pale brown machine spun cotton on this cloth. Although as we have noted Ebira women working in the rayon style cloths used a lot of extra weft float patterning this was much more elaborate than the minimal effect achieved here.
Moreover when we look carefully at these floats we note that rather than a regular over ten under one arrangement that we might expect the anchor threads are quite irregular – over ten under one, over 8 under one etcetera. Together with the asymmetric layout of the warp stripes this imparts a quite complex and dynamic effect to the design that I find very pleasing. As to its origins, the most likely explanation is that its source is not within Okene town but elsewhere in what is a very culturally diverse area. The cloth is in excellent condition and dates to circa 1920s-1950. There are no examples of this style in museum collections or published literature as far as I know. Hand spun indigo and white cotton. Measurements: 91ins x 66 ins, 232cm x 168cm. At present it is still available on our gallery here.