Hausa man’s embroidered tunic, West Africa

Man’s robe, indigo-dyed narrow-strip weave, made from cotton. It is embroidered with an asymmetrical design. It was made by the Hausa people of Nigeria, West Africa, around 1940. It 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 patternin...


Object No.


Physical Description

(-1) Shirt
(-x) Hanging rod

Very wide, pull-on style garment of loosely woven, indigo dyed cotton loomed in narrow 4cm strips hand sewn together to form wide rectangular shape with curved sleeve openings seamed together at hem only. Embroidered with loosely spun white cotton thread, forming bold geometric shapes across garment front and large double circular motif across centre back. Symbolic pattern known as "two knives" or aska biyu.



1360 mm


2620 mm



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 made from cotton and silk (?) and was produced in around 1940.

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 "two knives", or aska biyu. The design is also 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 "two knives" pattern, or 'aska biyu. The knives are embroidered on the pocket (aljihu). 'Aska biyu' designs were creating with white 'adawa' or 'tsamiya' thread, i.e. loosely-spun thread, which was sewn onto the dark blue-black 'saki', or indigo, cloth. This creates a bold contrasting pattern.

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, as this cloth is, the beating gives the cloth a glossy and ironed appearance, and helps to compact the threads used in the embroidery.

Hausa dyeing methods are different to those of the Yoruba. Instead of dyeing yarn and cloth in dye pots, as the Yoruba do, the Hausa dye in large pits, which have been dug out of the ground. These pits are lined with local cement, which consists of ashes, horsehair and cow dung. The Hausa also differ in the fact that the Hausa men are the dyers, while in Yoruba, the women do the dyeing. Dyeing is done by hired Hausa men, who stir the dye with long poles

The Hausa have traditionally dyed their cloths a solid blue-black colour (unlike Yoruba dyed cloths with are patterned with dye-resist techniques). As discussed by Picton and Mack;
"... Kano dyers specialise mainly in dyeing plain white cloth with no pattern added by any of the methods of resist-dyeing to be described below. Resist-dyeing is not unknown among Hausa dyers but it is generally regarded as a relatively recent imitation of Yoruba methods".

After the cloth is dipped, and the desired colour is achieved, it is left in the sun to dry. The Hausa then commonly pound dry indigo powder into the cloth with the mallet, as this produces a high sheen on the cloth. Traditional methods of dyeing by the Hausa, however, are not as common nowadays.

(Rebecca Fisher)



This Hausa robe was manufactured by the Hausa people of Nigeria, Western Africa in around 1940. It was purchased by the Powerhouse Museum by Inna Cymlich in 1985. 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, like this robe.

The Hausa have been dyeing cloth for many years. The Hausa city of Kano is one of the most important and famous dyeing centres. In the mid-nineteenth century, there were approximately two thousand dye pits in use at Kano.

(Rebecca Fisher)


Credit Line

Purchased 1985

Acquisition Date

17 May 1985

Cite this Object


Hausa man's embroidered tunic, West Africa 2016, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 20 November 2018, <>


{{cite web |url= |title=Hausa man's embroidered tunic, West Africa |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=20 November 2018 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}


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