Pitt Rivers Museum - Textiles


The Meaning of Textiles

TextileThe textiles people wear can tell us a great deal about them. Particular styles of weaving can be identified to cultural regions, ethnic groups and even individual villages. Certain colours and patterns may be worn only by women, others by men. Some designs and colours may be worn only before marriage, others only afterwards. The young may wear brighter colours than the old. The wearing of more elaborate textiles may indicate increased wealth or advanced social standing. In most communities, including our own, special textiles are worn for important occasions such as weddings and funerals. Some textiles are woven specifically to clothe the dead.

The appearance of exotic textiles within a community may indicate contact with other groups who weave in different ways, or with different materials. Textiles have always been important in trade and tribute and may also form part of ceremonial exchanges or gifts to honoured guests. Sometimes they have even been used as currency items: you can find a roll of cloth money from West Africa in the currency display in the Lower Gallery.

Every handwoven textile has an interesting history. Look at some of the examples on display in the Museum and see how much information they can give you.

The Hausa man's gown

The textile for the Hausa gown from Nigeria (No. 2 in the African section) was woven in balanced plain weave as a single very long narrow strip on a simple treadle loom by a male weaver. The cotton yarn may have been hand spun and most of it was dyed with indigo. After weaving, the strip was cut up and the pieces stitched together to make a wider textile. The gown was made up by a tailor. The embroidery, in commercial yarn, was probably done by a number of male specialists working on different areas of the gown. It might have taken as long as two months to complete. The Hausa people are Muslim and the embroidery designs show Islamic influence. This gown has a popular motif called "eight knives" on the left front (three "knives" are visible). The finished gown was wide, tent-like and very elegant. It was worn with an embroidered cap and very baggy embroidered trousers, though these were almost completely hidden by the gown. Many men in West Africa still wear this costume.

The Navajo woman's dress

The black and red Navajo blanket from the southwestern USA (No. 3 in the American section) dates from the middle of the nineteenth century, when the Navajos still wove clothes for themselves rather than rugs for sale to white people. This "blanket" is actually half of a woman's dress: two such textiles with red borders top and bottom were stitched together at the sides and shoulders and worn with a red warp-patterned belt tied round the waist. The weft-faced woollen textile was woven in tapestry technique by a woman (probably the wearer) on a vertical loom. The black yarn was spun from the fleece of her family's sheep and dyed with indigo imported from Mexico. The red yarn may have been unravelled from imported European woollen cloth, the colour of which was greatly admired by the Navajos. This was before chemical dyes were available. In the 1860s the US government forced the Navajos to live in captivity for four years. During that time many of the women adopted European clothes and the blanket dress was much less used. By the end of the nineteenth century Navajo women had switched from weaving their own clothes to making heavier floor rugs for the European market.

The Naga man's cloth

The man's cloth made at Pangti in the Naga Hills of northeastern India (No.3 on the right hand side of the Asian section) was woven by a Liye Lhota Naga woman (probably the wearers wife) in balanced weave on a backstrap loom, using handspun cotton yarn. Most of the yarn is dyed red or black, probably using natural dyes. The cloth, called rakisu, is made up of three separate textiles stitched together. The narrow central band is in nature white cotton, with designs painted on it by a specialist male painter. These designs show that the weaver was a very important man. He had taken heads in raids on other villages (formerly an important Naga ritual), given large public feasts, sacrificed cattle and killed a tiger. He could show his rank by wearing this cloth, worn wrapped around the body with the painted band horizontal.

Finding out more

A handmade textile is rather like a detective story, with all the clues carefully woven into it. To unravel them it helps to know the basic facts about spinning and weaving, but there is still as great deal more that can be learnt. You may now want to go on and read more detailed books about textiles, or books about the people who make them and how they live.

Text written by Linda Mowat