Monday, 20 February 2012

Exploring form and colour – An Ewe textile masterpiece


The large elaborately patterned cloths commissioned from master weavers by chiefs and wealthy “big men” of the Ewe in the Volta region of Ghana and Togo in the early decades of the C20th are some of the most admired and sought after of African textiles. There was far greater diversity of design and elaboration of technique among the weavers that made up what we now regard as the Ewe tradition than among the court-centred  kente cloth weavers of their near neighbours, the Asante. In simple terms Ewe cloths were prestige display items worn at important events to demonstrate publicly the wealth and cultural sophistication of the wearer. Since elaboration of well woven figurative weft float motifs such as people, animals, swords etc was the primary factor in the increasing the cost of a cloth ( as they required more skill, time and costly materials to weave) in the majority of cases  they provided the primary signifier of the owner’s wealth and the weaver’s skill. From time to time, however, we can encounter a cloth where a more subtle display of skill and connoisseurship is apparent . Such is the case with the cloth above, dating from circa 1920-40,  (click the image for a much larger view) which, in my view at least, is a tour de force of weaving skill expressed through variation in colour and form rather than in complexity of motif.


The warp pattern (going vertically on the detail image above) remains the same throughout the cloth – blue predominates, broken up by clusters of narrow stripes in red, white, and yellow. Sparing use is made of weft stripes, in the section above, a pair of wider stripes in yellow thread. Three of the warp colours, red, white, and blue, along with another colour, green, are used widely in the weft patterning, while the forth warp colour, yellow, appears much less. 

The detail above also introduces us to the main decorative technique explored to such effect on this cloth, a continual reconfiguration of width and colour and placement in the use of weft faced stripes.  The weaver uses the basic pattern structure of many Ewe cloths, in which  a composite pattern block is made up of two wide weft faced blocks that frame a warp faced section with a central motif. This composite pattern block is then aligned against warp faced areas on the two adjacent strips creating an alternation that structures the overall pattern layout of the cloth. Unusually the weaver also adds paired weft stripes (not weft-faced stripes) that break up many of the warp faced blocks, varying this in places by omitting them or using a different colour or technique.


Within this grid structure the weaver plays around with variations in the width of stripes and the placement of colours, restraining his palette to red, blue, white and green, with sporadic yellow. Variation is also achieved by plying two colours of thread together, in the section above blue with white, red with white and green with white.


If we focus on a a single strip this use of stripes emerges clearly – click the image to enlarge. Each of the nine composite pattern blocks differs from its neighbours. Reading from the left we have: 1 – a double stripe in red and white, single red, single white, plied red and white; 2 – two wide blocks composed of narrow red, white, blue , and plied red/white, framing a single wide plied red/white stripe; 3 – two wide blocks of varying width stripes adding green to the previous colours, with the same central stripe; 4 – as 3 but with central stripe omitted; 5 – returns to 3 with central stripe but slight variant in second block; 6 – block made up of ten evenly spaced narrow stripes separated by warp faced areas; 7 – the first three narrow stripes of the previous block are compressed together, a zigzag supplementary warp float motif (one of only two on the entire cloth) separates others; 8 – two blocks composed of varying stripe widths, no central stripe; 9 – as 8 but with red/white plied central stripe.

Finally, if we return to the full picture from the start of the post we see a distinct lower edge strip in which solid wide stripes, some framed by narrow white stripes,  simplify the pattern block layout.


What interests me here, aside from the visual beauty of the result, is how a master weaver could set himself constraints in colour and pattern, using only part of the repertoire at his disposal, and using rhythms of repetition and variation, explore those possibilities to the full. Close attention to the cloth pays tribute to his skill and to the knowledgeable patronage of his customer.

To view this cloth and others in our recently updated gallery of Ewe textiles click here. Or of course you are welcome to come and see it at our shop.

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