Friday, 23 May 2014

African Textiles in Close-up: two robes in the British Museum

At the end of last month I had the opportunity to spend a morning at the new textile store for the British Museum in Blyth House, West London. With the patient assistance of curator Julie Hudson and Textile Centre manager Helen Wolfe I was able to look closely at a number of robes and cloths from the British Museum’s vast collection that had attracted my attention either in publications or via their online database. (The entire collection is now online here and provides a hugely important resource for those interested in studying African textiles.)

Although I am lucky enough to spend most of my days surrounded by stacks of old African cloths there is in my view always more to be learned and more details to be grasped by paying close attention to threads, weaves, patterns, constructions, layouts, textures, etcetera. Some of these can be learned from photographs but actually seeing and handling cloths reveals more again. [Any of the cloths, or indeed other items, in the collection of the British Museum can be viewed by appointment and curators are generally happy to help.]

Over the next few weeks I will be writing a short series of posts based on this visit, beginning today with a look at two  robes from Sierra Leone or, more probably, Liberia. One of these has been frequently published and the other is very obscure.

My attention was drawn to this simple and rather stained looking robe (British Museum number AF,WA.10) by the early accession number and the brief description on the image page “Embroidered garment made of cloth (grass).” In old descriptions and travellers accounts of West African textiles cloths described as woven of “grass” are generally actually woven from raffia (the dried inner leaves of a type of palm tree. While cloths woven from raffia on the upright single heddle loom in West Africa are reasonably widespread, strip woven raffia cloths are extremely rare (primarily, I think, because raffia thread could only provide short lengths that had to be tied together.)


There is no detailed record surviving of the origin or accession date of the robe but it appears to be part of the collection left to the museum by Henry Christy (1810-1865.) Disappointingly the first thing that became apparent when we handled and examined this robe was that despite the rather harsh scratchy texture, it was in fact woven from hand spun cotton not raffia. Raffia is not spun so on close examination the fibres are flat rather than round as here. [The main description on the BM page has now been corrected following our examination.]


So what accounts for the pale beige colour and harsh texture ? The robe appears to have been soaked in some kind of plant based dye (most probably after robe was tailored but before it was embroidered.)  Although I am not aware of any documentation of this practice in the southern part of Sierra Leone or Liberia, it is still in use in the making of “war shirts” called hu ronko among the Limba people in the north of the country and in neighbouring Guinea. In their book Blues et ocres de Guinée Anne-Chantal Gravellini and Annie Ringuedé describe the use of the bark of the tree terminalia ivorensis along with the kola nut Cola nitida to dye cloths and tunics a variety of ochre shades.

Also notable was the regular placement of thicker wefts at intervals along each strip of cloth. The embroidery, although limited in area and elaboration, is quite complex in design. Below is a detail from the back. Imported wool, cotton and silk is used.


The pocket has the folded over corner and oblique placing that were found on many robes from the Guinea Coast region and help to distinguish them from the better known robes of Mali and Nigeria.


The sides of the robe are completely open but it can be seen that they were once sewn up at the lower part. This sleeveless structure would put this robe within the group that the Lambs (Sierra Leone Weaving by Venice and Alastair Lamb)  report are called kusaibi, while the second robe that we looked at, with a more complex tailored design is called in Manding duriki ba.

Below we show front and back views from the BM site (BM accession number Af1934,0307.218). This robe was part of the Beving collection accessioned in 1934 but can be assumed to be from the nineteenth century.



Published by the Lambs with photographs that make it look very yellow this remarkable robe is in fact a very similar pale ochre colour to the first one we looked at, although it is softer to handle.


In this robe also there is a decorative effect in the cloth used achieved by adding thicker threads in the weft, albeit here in blocks rather than the single threads used in Af.WA.10. This is a quite unusual technique in West African strip weaving and may in itself point towards an origin in the same region. In his book Le Boubou –c’est chic (Basel, 2000), Bernhard Gardi attributes the very small number of robes of this type to Liberia. A blue ground robe with rather similar embroidery to this was collected in 1932 from a Mano chief in a village called Blaui in northern Liberia.





Click on the photos to enlarge. In the post above all detail photos are by Duncan Clarke and the full views are from the linked pages on the British Museum site.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Vintage African Textile Cushions


We now have a small selection of cushions handmade from our vintage African textiles. Indigo strip weave cloths from Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso are backed with indigo dyed antique French linen. Beige Yoruba strip weave aso oke from Nigeria is backed with vintage hemp fabric from Hungary. All have high quality feather pads and zip closures. Cloths used are carefully selected for neatness and aesthetic appeal. As each cloth is unique the number of cushions in each design is limited to four or six pieces. All cushions are priced at US$165/GBP95 each.


To view our currently available selection please click here.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Cloth of the month: an early indigo dyed aso oke wrapper.


“AS492 - Exceptional and early indigo strip weave aso oke from the Yoruba region of Nigeria, with a beautiful and subtle effect achieved by pale indigo warp stripes against a dark indigo check background, with fine hand spun cotton used throughout. The slight sheen apparent in the photo is an effect of a recent washing and starching to prepare it for resale in Nigeria, an old tradition that is still maintained in some districts - it is less visible in reality than under the photo lighting. Retains its original hand stitched seams throughout and is in excellent condition. Age circa 1900. Measurements: 80 ins x 56, 203cm x 142cm.” – on our gallery here.


This cloth is called an iro, and would have been worn as a wrap around skirt by a wealthy Yoruba lady on an important occasion such as a wedding or a chieftaincy ceremony. It would have formed part of a set of cloths woven in the same pattern, along with two or three smaller pieces worn as shawl, headtie, and  sometimes a hip cloth.  What makes this an exceptional piece ? To my eye what singles out this cloth is the quality of the indigo dyeing. Very dark, almost black, indigo dyed strip weave cloth was prestigious and expensive because of the high number of immersions in the dye required to achieve that colour. When patterned as a fine check or plaid of lighter blue or white threads, it was known as etu, or guinea fowl, after the speckled plumage of the bird. In the Yoruba aso oke tradition etu formed part of a threefold classification of high status cloths along with magenta silk alaari obtained from the trans-Sahana caravan trade network, and local beige wild silk called sanyan.


On this cloth the small scale check of etu is replaced by a larger check design that was called petuje, that literally translates as “kill and eat guineafowl” but meant “surpasses etu”. Here though it is combined with warp stripes in a beautifully dyed mid-blue. One stripe runs along the selvedge of each strip while a second is set slightly off centre to create the regular layout.


Click on the photos to enlarge. Our galleries of indigo cloths are here and here.

Friday, 9 May 2014

The original work wear - Mossi Indigo Cloths from Burkina Faso



The Mossi are the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso, numbering some five to six million people. In the centuries preceding colonisation by the French at the end of the C19th the Mossi had used their skill as cavalry to maintain a large and powerful empire. Both weaving and indigo dyeing flourished in the region. Today vintage Mossi indigo cloths, woven from soft handspun cotton and faded through years of heavy use to a variety of subtle shades, are in great demand. 





“Weaving is an ancient tradition in the area now inhabited by the Mossi. Several of the original clans include stories of weavers in their myths of origin, and among clans near Guilongou, between Ouagadougou and Kaya, traditions state that the founding ancestor was a weaver who descended to earth on the threads of his warp carrying a wooden mask.

Working exclusively during the dry season, usually in large workshops that are organized and financed by merchants with adequate capital to purchase homespun or factory-spun thread, young men from 10 to 30 years of age produce vast quantities of plain, white cotton bands on horizontal narrow-warp looms.” Source: Dr. Christopher Roy, “The Art of Burkina Faso” Art & Life in Africa, University of Iowa.


Mossi indigo dyers, vintage postcard, circa 1910.


Working with partners in Burkina Faso we collect well used cloths from Mossi villages, then carefully select, sort, and wash them.  The colour of these pieces is fast and will not bleed on further washing or handling. We reject inferior recently made pieces or cloths aged artificially as the weave quality and handling are unsatisfactory. Our customers have used our Mossi indigos as shawls,scarves and throws, to tailor jackets and waistcoats, for upholstery, cushions, and a variety of other interiors projects. Wholesale prices are available on request.

At the moment in the shop we have a small group of beautiful hand made cushions backed with vintage indigo dyed French linen.


Cushions made from Mossi indigo cloths (not from us) can be seen in the June 2014 issue of World of Interiors below.


To view some of our current stock, along with other vintage West African indigo textiles on our website click here. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Dogon heddles, Mali


Weaver’s heddles hang on a house exterior, Dogon country, Mali. Photographer unknown. Source: tumblr

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Yoruba asooke in the Gold Coast, circa 1900


This photograph from the Basel Mission archive shows a wife of the King of Accra. She is dressed in the fashionable style of the day, with a typical high swept hairstyle, and most likely would have been of Ga ethnicity.   Although the description only notes that it dates to “before 1917” it appears earlier and more likely around 1900.  Aside from being a fine image it interests me because it provides a rare early glimpse of Yoruba asooke cloth in use in the Gold Coast. Folded across her lap is a shawl in a classic Yoruba strip weave design of the late C19th, similar to the example from our gallery shown below.


From the later decades of the C19th until the 1960s Ghana provided a large and important market for Yoruba weavers. Growing numbers of Yoruba people settled in the Gold Coast (most were expelled from the then independent Ghana in 1969) and traders from the Oyo Yoruba town of Ogbomoso dominated the export trade in asooke. Much of the cloth was woven to order, with traders gathering sufficient orders then walking back to their home region to organise the weaving of  the cloth, either in Ogbomoso or in the larger weaving towns nearby such as Iseyin,  Ilorin and Oyo. In the early decades of the twentieth century many of these traders used bicycles, packing a large bundle of cloth on the saddle then pushing it several hundred miles back to the north of Ghana.

Although locally woven cloth and cloth traded from elsewhere in the country was of course available throughout Ghana from Asante, Ewe, and other weavers, the imported varieties from Nigeria offered an alternative that at least in the case of more expensive examples using silk from the trans-Saharan trade, was highly valued. Our photograph provides a rare visual proof of this high status. Posing for a portrait photograph was a rare and important event at that period, and every detail of the sitter’s appearance and outfit would have been carefully selected. For a high status woman such as the wife of a king to display an asooke shawl so prominently in the photograph clearly indicates that it was a prized and prestigious possession. 


Two ladies in Indigo–Thies, Senegal, circa 1910


Hand-coloured vintage postcard, circa 1910, publisher E.H. , Thies, Senegal. Both ladies wear indigo dyed boubou, one has a strip woven indigo pagne, the other a stitch and tied resist example. The lady on the left has a fine embroidered resist shawl around her shoulders and across her lap.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Heartwear–indigo from Benin



“In 1993, with a group of stylist friends, Lidewij Edelkoort created Heartwear, a non-profit association that helps to sustain handcraft knowledge and thus collaborates with artisans to tailor their products for worldwide export, without compromising the skill, knowledge, culture and environment of the region involved. Design talent is coupled with marketing insight. Trend forecasting skills are balanced with historical and cultural knowledge. Among its many projects, Heartwear has developed indigo textiles for home and fashion with artisans in Benin, ceramics with potters in Morocco, and khadi cotton in India.” Source here.


See also the article on Heartwear in Selvedge magazine May/June 2014.