Discover the Silks of Highland Madagascar
It explored 19th century akotifahana wrappers from the ROM’s unparalleled collection, employing new research to question old theories that suggested this style of cloth had ancient roots or conversely, was primarily influenced by Europe, finding instead crucial ties to India and Arabia. Finally, it revealed the results of fascinating dye testing carried out on ROM pieces by the Canadian Conservation Institute, Ottawa.
The central highlands region of Imerina, which rises to 1200 meters, was a major centre for textile production. Living near sources of wild silk, and a network of rural markets, many Merina women became semi-professional weavers, producing for sale. Their specialty was enormous, heavy wrappers of local silk, dyed sombre colours, and embellished with metallic beads. These wrappers were widely traded and purchased by the powerful and wealthy.
Making Akotifahana Cloth from "Chinese Silk"
Processing the wild silk: methods and techniques
Rather than crush local cloth making, imported threads and fabrics appear to have inspired and stimulated the weavers of highland Madagascar. Women began combining local and imported silk and experimenting with colours, coming to use every shade in the rainbow. Perhaps to emulate the figured silks of Asia and Europe, they developed a new form of embellishment: inserting supplementary coloured threads to create motifs. Thus were born the magnificent brocaded mantles known as akotifahana.
Scholars also assumed that the cloth’s motifs held religious meaning or marked political rank. Instead, we now think motifs may have originally been drawn from Indian trade cloths; later they came to reference plants and objects of daily life. Altogether, brocaded wrappers were likely a short-lived urban secular fashion. They fell from popularity by 1890 when elite city dwellers largely gave up wearing mantles.
"...a separate thread is inserted to make the motif, using whatever type of thread the weaver might choose to employ; each stripe can have different figures: they may be red, yellow, green, black, yellow-orange, whatever colour one wants; and one varies the design shapes, such as crosses, “explosions”, designs taken from porcelain dishes, images of people, birds, whatever a person wants, for as the proverb says “like the love of cloth designs: each person makes the design s/he wants."
- The Manuscript of The Ombiasy
For more information: http://www.rom.on.ca/en/collections-research/research-community-projects/world-culture/in-living-colour-the-roms-unique
Dr. Sarah Fee, Curator (Eastern Hemisphere Textiles & Fashion)
With thanks to the weavers of Ambohidrabiby and Soatanana, Madagascar for sharing their knowledge, and to Cole Cowan and Sarah Messerschmidt for production assistance.
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