NotesThis 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.