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A8510 Tunic, embroidered, cotton, Hausa people, Nigeria, 1900-1930. Click to enlarge.

Hausa embroidered tunic

Made in Nigeria, Africa, 1900-1930.

Very large men's robe, made from narrow-strips of weaving, and embroidered with an asymmetrical design. It was made by the Hausa people of Nigeria, West Africa, during the early 1900s. This cotton Hausa robe was produced on a men's double-heddle portable loom (or horizontal frame treadle loom). This loom produces what is known as narrow-band weaving (or narrow-strip weaving). The shirt is composed of numerous strips of narrow-band weaving, which were cut and sewn selvedge to selvedge, with addi...


Object No.


Object Statement

Tunic, embroidered, cotton, Hausa people, Nigeria, 1900-1930

Physical Description

Man's tunic, narrow strip-weave cotton, embroidered asymmetrical design, Hausa people, Nigeria, West Africa, early 1900s

Very large garment with bat wings, pullover style. Plain tabby weave strips sewn together. At the inside base a strip of blue and pink fabric has been added. The back is lower than the front. On the left hand side of the neck embroidery has been done which extends over the shoulder. A large embroidered pocket has been sewn to the left hand side near the shoulder.



1235 mm


3100 mm



Nigeria, Africa 1900-1930


This cotton Hausa robe was produced on a men's double-heddle portable loom (or horizontal frame treadle loom). This loom produces what is known as narrow-band weaving (or narrow-strip weaving). The shirt is composed of numerous strips of narrow-band weaving, which were cut and sewn selvedge to selvedge, with additional embroidery patterning. This robe is probably made from narrow strips of woven cotton.

Wide-sleeved, flowing robes like this are made by both the Hausa and Yoruba people. The Hausa call them 'riga', 'babariga' or 'babba riga', while the Yoruba know them as 'agbada'. More generally, this flowing sleeved robe, which is worn throughout the majority of West Africa, and fewer areas of North Africa, is referred to as a 'boubou'.

Hausa 'babba riga' robes, or "great robe[s]", are usually embroidered by a 'malam'. As discussed in 'A History of Art in Africa';
"Learned men in many Islamic African cultures are known as malam, a title akin to "master" or "teacher". In addition to designing buildings, malam use their knowledge of geometry, calligraphy, and numerology to produce visually and spiritually effective works of art" (A History of Art in Africa, p. 99).

The designs on 'babba riga' robes are usually embroidered with cotton or silk, with a needle. It is unclear as to what the embroidery on this robe consists of. The pattern on this robe is known as "eight knives". The design is also possibly composed of eyelet embroidery, known as "a thousand ant holes". The embroidered design has elements which are pointed and sharp, and also rounded and circular. David Heathcote refers to these designs as "indigenous", as they are commonly found on other common Hausa objects, such as pottery, bowls, basketry and body decoration. Hausa, Nupe and Yoruba robes are very similar in appearance and design, and it can occasionally be almost impossible to distinguish where a particular robe was made.

The design on this robe consists of what is known as the "eight knives" pattern, or 'aska takwas', which is arguably the most commonly used, and most popular, embroidered design. The knives are embroidered on the top of the pocket (aljihu), and around the neck area;
"...the three long triangular forms at one side of the opening for the head of the wearer and the five long triangles in a row at the base of the opening. Such motifs were evidently protective devices?" (A History of Art in Africa, p. 99).

As discussed by Picton and Mack, Hausa "[e]mbroiderers employ a relatively small number of geometric elements which are put together in various ways, repeated, enlarged, etc". Because the Hausa people are Muslim, the designs embroidered by Hausa men are influenced by Islamic culture.

Hausa embroidery is commonly created for men, entirely by men. Men work on these textiles in different locations, depending on other obligations, and may work at home, or in a market. The process of embroidering robes like this is a long and involving process. It is unusual for a man to work alone on embroidering a wide- sleeved robe. Instead, it is more common for several men to work on embroidering one robe. The process of embroidering normally begins on the large pocket to the front-left of the robe. The embroidery then continues to the right side of the front of the robe, above the pocket, and to the back of the robe. Prior to embroidering, the desired design is drawn onto the pocket, and onto the rest of the robe. The drawing is not carried out by the embroiderer, but a specialist drawer. A pen made out of guinea-corn stalk (karan dafi), red ink also made out of guinea-corn stalk, or white chalk (if the fabric is dark) can all be used to draw on the design. Complex designs can be drawn onto a cloth by a skilled drawer within hours. Embroidery, on the other hand, can take months for embroiderers to complete.

After the embroidery has been completed on the robe, the pocket is sewn on, probably by a tailor. The embroidered area is then beaten with a wooden mallet over a smooth log. This is the same process as carried out by the Yoruba when dyeing cloth with indigo dye. Whether the cloth is dyed or not, the beating gives the cloth a glossy and ironed appearance, and helps to compact the threads used in the embroidery.

(Rebecca Fisher)



This Hausa robe was manufactured by the Hausa people of Nigeria, Western Africa during the early 1900's. It was purchased by the Powerhouse Museum by Mr David Spode in 1982. This robe was embroidered by a Hausa man, or possibly several men. While men did most of the embroidery, women did embroider less prestigious items, such as caps and blouses. They also spun the cotton or silk to be used in the embroidering.

Hausa robes such as this were, and still are, mainly worn by Hausa men on special occasions, such as weddings and funerals. They are also worn throughout Nigeria by kings, chiefs, and other important men. The large robes in particular are only worn by the most important of men. Hausa robes can also be important family heirlooms, being passed through the family and worn on the special occasions discussed, and were also traded throughout Africa, and given as second hand gifts.

Hausa embroidery is thought to have originated sometime around the 15th century. According to David Heathcote;
"...the earliest embroidery in Hausaland must have been imported but that by the fifteenth century there would very probably have been some local embroidered in the larger towns and cities such as Kano" (Picton and Mack, African Textiles, p. 189).

Hausa embroidery is mainly produced in the major cities, and few cloths are produced in rural areas. Heathcote also believes that the more elaborately embroidered designs on Hausa cloths are more than likely an addition more recent than the fifteenth century. Embroidery among the Hausa is an important indicator of social status, as the more embroidery present on a robe, the wealthier the owner and the more luxurious the piece of cloth.

This Hausa robe is only part of the completed outfit worn by Hausa men.
"...The finished gown was wide, tent-like and very elegant. It was worn with an embroidered cap and very baggy embroidered trousers [wando], though these were almost completely hidden by the gown. Many men in West Africa still wear this costume" (Pitt Rivers Museum).
Traditionally, a turban is wound around the cap. Today however, caps are worn by themselves. Due to the large width of the 'riga', it is worn gathered at the shoulders.

In the past, because these kinds of embroidered designed robes were not made for women, some women in the courts wore men's gowns, which were cut up by the women, and worn as wrappers. As discussed by Picton and Mack,
"[t]here are a few, rare examples of men's hand embroidery of women's clothing, in particular the large cloths women wrap and tuck in around themselves" (Picton and Mack, African Textiles, p. 192.)

Today, the complex and time-consuming hand embroidery of the past is rarely produced. While robes are still occasionally made from hand-woven cloth, the embroidered designs are now commonly replaced with machine stitched appliqué. Imported cloths are also commonly used. This particular robe, therefore, is an example of a traditional Hausa robe, as it is hand embroidered. In particular, traditional while robes similar to this are becoming increasingly less common. The more common Hausa robes are blue, being dyed with indigo dye.

(Rebecca Fisher)


Credit Line

Purchased 1982

Acquisition Date

10 November 1982

Cite this Object


Hausa embroidered tunic 2019, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 25 February 2020, <>


{{cite web |url= |title=Hausa embroidered tunic |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=25 February 2020 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}

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