On a chance visit to my favorite store in Cape Town’s Famous Kalk Bay – Unesandla Crafts located inside the Indoor Market I fell involve with a cloth which once I picked up I couldn’t put down and so, it made its way to my home and onto the wall above my bed. It has been there ever since, despite me moving house since.
What is it you ask? So did I, and found that it is Kita (handwoven) cloth of the Baule of Cote D’Ivoire, West Africa. The Baule are the majority ethnic of group of Cote D’Ivoire, and a subgroup of the Akan people. It is said that they were led to what is now central Cote D’Ivoire around 1750 by their queen, breaking away from the Asante kingdom of modern day Ghana. As such, their history and culture has been closely affiliated with the Asante kingdom, widely famed for their rich weaving tradition. Well some sources say that the tradition Baule weaving dates back to this time, it is incredibly difficult to track linear cultural histories due to centuries of internal movement and influence. It has been disputed that the Baule weaving tradition is in fact much more modern, dating only to the early 20th century and the influence of their Dioula neighbors to the north of the country and to the west in modern day Burkina Faso. The Dioula have been long and widely esteemed for their weaving and dyeing proficiency, and the shape of their loom which requires a uniquely upright – almost standing – position of the weaver is much closer to the style of the Baule weavers than the other neighboring groups.
While acknowledgement of Baule cloth has gained global visibility in recent times, the Baule have been foremost known for their fine wood carving skills. Sculptures, figures and other finely carved tools including weaving implements such as heddle pulleys and reed beaters have been celebrated across many private and museum collections of African art globally. Above their fine artistry, the Baule are farmers. Their savannah plains are well suited to cotton and indigenous species have been cultivated for centuries in rotation with yams, maize and other subsistence crops, boosting production and maintaining the quality of the soil. After the fall of the lucrative rubber plant industry in the beginning of the 20th century the french colonial rulers of Cote D’Ivoire turned to cotton as the primary export cash crop enforcing compulsory cotton cultivation across the country defining a capital driven shift from subsistence to cash crop.
As is the case in many cultures, the preparation of fibre for weaving is done by the women of the Baule. After preparing the raw fibre, women spin the cotton into yarn using drop spindles and then either bleach or dye the yarn in preparation for weaving. As is common in West African handloom, traditional cloths are predominantly white and blue, owing to the widespread prevalence vairious indigenous species of cotton and indigo-bearing plants including the particularly potent Indigofera arrecta and Lonchocarpus cyanescens. The Modern Baule cloth is typified by the use of ikat, a technique of resist dyeing in which warp threads are bound tightly using thread or rubber before being submerged in dye vats before weaving. When the bundles of warp is untied the bound sections remain undyed, this allows patterns to be created on the warp faced weave without needing to adjust the structure of the weave. The tell tale sign of ikat technique is the feathered edges between sections of white – undyed cotton and the indigo ground due to the variation in exact dyed length between warp threads. The Ikat tradition is relatively modern and has been attributed directly to the influence of the Dioula in the region from around the 1950s. Some sources say that the Dioula are still responsible for the dyeing of yarns for Baule weavers. (Gillow, 2003:76)
All weaving is done by men in most of Africa. The skills are passed down through a strict apprenticeship system. Generally boys enter the apprenticeship around the age of eight with the consent of their parents. The entire apprenticeship lasts around 7 years, however it is noteworthy that most weaving only happens in the dry season when agricultural obligations are reduced. The first two years are spent mostly in observation, learning through watching. Over the next four years the skills necessary are slowly learnt, first auxiliary activities, assisting the master and eventually mastering important complex seams. Only in the final year may the student begin to explore weaving their own designs.
The weaver sits at a frame loom, which is usually built by adding a seat and weaving apparatus to a couple of trees as fixed upright supports. As is in much of the region, weaving is done in narrow bands or ’strip cloth’. Each strip is woven at approximately 5 inches wide which are sewn together selvedge to selvedge once complete to create a final larger cloth. The completed cloths are generally used as wrappers or outerwear by both men and women particularly for special occasions and traditional ceremonies. They generally consist of ten strips (approximatedly 1.5m) by 1.8m for women and 3.2m for men.
The strip weave technique produces a warp faced weave, meaning that the horizontal weft, which structurally to lock the warp threads into place, running side to side is invisible, entirely covered by the warp threads which run the length of the cloth. The pattern on a weave like this is created by the placement of alternating bands of colored warp threads which produce a pattern through the alternation from one shed, or lifting of a set of warp threads, to the next. This is where the ikat technique becomes a valuable additional tool in creating pattern.
Particularly in modern examples, from after the 1960s when synthetically dyed yarns were introduced to the region, many Baule cloths feature additional brightly colored threads motifs. These are either tied into the cloth as it is woven as a supplementary or floating weft design, where an extra weft thread is passed over selected warp threads in addition to the invisible structural weft thread, or added as embroidery to the completed woven cloth. These threads are often bright pink, orange, green and yellow common creating a contrasting feature.
The town of Bomizambo, near the capital city of Yamoussoukro, is heralded as the centre of contemporary Baule cloth production. The tradition remains to be supported through the strict apprenticeship system and structured weavers cooperatives in many villages. These weavers supply the local demand for the cloth. This is mostly for ceremonial use by both members of the community and the famed masked dancers and is sold in local markets and on road side stalls near the villages in which it is produced, aimed at tourists and other passing trade.
In researching this story I was really surprised to see how many modern vintage examples, from around 1990 onwards are available online. A vast amount of these through the online retail platform Etsy, and many many other small western retailers of textiles and home furnishings, particularly as cushion covers and often accompanied by the tagline ‘boho’. While I believe that the growing market for the cloth is positive, with more spaces across the world being beautified by and creating visibility of these highly skilled artisan’s wares, I was rather disappointed by the lack of accompanying information by many retailers. While the artistic merit of these cloths speaks for themselves I believe it is very important for retailers to give due credit and accurate accompanying information, particularly when they direct benefit financially from these objects which are ultimately culturally significant traditional objects produced by communities who are greatly underrepresented in global markets and media.
Bassett, T, J.1988. ‘The Development of Cotton in Northern Ivory Coast 1910 – 1965.’ The Journal of African History. 29
Clark, D. 2009. ’Hand woven textiles in Cote D’Ivoire today.’ Adire African Textiles
Gillow, J. 2003. African Textiles. London: Thames & Hudson
Le Voyage du Calao. 2019. ‘BOMIZAMBO, LA CITÉ DU PAGNE BAOULÉ’
Lignon, E. 2019. ‘Yamoussoukro: The weavers of Bomizambo are training the next generation.’ Adibjan Tv
Loua, A. 2020. ‘The Art of Making The Baoulé Fabric’. The Kente Gentleman