Born of the Indian Ocean

Discover the Silks of Highland Madagascar

Men and Women of Merina (1865/1865) by Council for World Mission archive, SOAS Library, CWM/LMS/MA/photo/02/002/161Original Source:

Born of the Indian Ocean

Although an island, Madagascar has never been isolated. Situated in the Indian Ocean, at the crossroads of trade networks, its people have long had close ties to Asia, Africa, and Europe. Nowhere is this more visible than in their vibrant textile arts, which continually incorporate new fibres, dyes, and decoration. Traders from Indonesia settled the island from 300CE. They brought with them textile styles, colours, and techniques that are recognizably Southeast Asian. 

Multi-coloured akotifahanaOriginal Source:


In the early 19th century, increased trade brought large amounts of "Chinese" silk (Bombyx mori) to the island. Using this luminescent fibre, professional weavers in the central highlands created a whole new genre: wildly coloured and vibrantly patterned wrappers, known as akotifahana. Great works of art, the cloths also had great social value: elites wore them as ceremonial wear while the royal court gifted them to high-ranking subjects and foreign dignitaries.

Akotifahana Woven in 2010 (darker shades) Akotifahana Woven in 2010 (darker shades) (2010)Original Source:


A closer look at the akotifahana...

Akotifahana Woven in 2010 (darker shades)Original Source:

It is made of Chinese silk (Bombyx), using supplementary wefts and synthetic dyes

ROM Installation (2013)Royal Ontario Museum

An exhibition of akotifahana was held at the Royal Ontario Museum from November 2013 to August 2014.

ROM Installation (2013/2013)Original Source:

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.

A Woman of Madagascar by William EllisOriginal Source:

Madagascar, the Malagasy People, and the Indian Ocean

Geographical and ethnic context

Madagascar by ROMRoyal Ontario Museum

Confounding expectations, Madagascar's first settlers came not from nearby Africa, but from present-day Indonesia, 6000 km to the east. They arrived about 300 CE, bringing with them an Asian language – called Malagasy – and many cultural traditions that included weaving.

Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world – about the size of France – and lies 400 km east of the coast of Mozambique.

These first settlers were in turn followed by others sailing the busy sea lanes connecting Asia to East Africa. Such as Africans...

... Arabs ...

... and Indians.

Malagasy People on the Background of a Landscape (1865/1865) by William EllisOriginal Source:

Historic Weaving and Weavers in Highland Madagascar

In Madagascar, people historically dressed in rectangular pieces of cloth, draping them about the body in various ways, and using them to wrap revered ancestors for burial. Women wove fine cloth from leaves, bark, cotton, and silk, using dyes extracted from plants and minerals to create colourful stripes. Deep blue, brick red, yellow, and black were the preferred shades.

The highland Malagasy loom (c. 1900)Original Source:

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"Original Source:

Making Akotifahana Cloth from "Chinese Silk"

Cream-coloured brocaded akotifahanaOriginal Source:

The Wildly Different Silks of Madagascar

Larvae of Bombyx mothsOriginal Source:

Larvae of Bombyx Moths

Akotifahana cloths are made of “Chinese” silk, produced by the moth species, Bombyx mori. Domesticated in China, its larvae will eat only cut mulberry leaves.

Borocera Madagascariensis by © Oxford University Museum of Natural HistoryRoyal Ontario Museum

Borocera Madagascariensis

Radama IOriginal Source:

From 1820, British government agents partnered with Radama I, the King of Imerina, to introduce Bombyx weaving, and eventually local sericulture took root.

Working the Wild Silk of MadagascarOriginal Source:

Processing the wild silk: methods and techniques

A Woman of Madagascar (1860) by SOAS Library CWML V300.Original Source:

Akotifahana: New Wrapper Fashion of the 19th Century

From the early 19th century, highland Madagascar wrappers began to change radically. Booming international trade in the Indian Ocean brought increased commerce and wealth to the island. Many Malagasy used their profits to acquire luxury fabrics that traders brought from Asia and —  to a lesser extent — Europe. 

Merina Elite Man Wearing His Akotifahana by SOAS Library CWML V300.Original Source:

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.

A Merina Official and His Aide (1860/1860) by William EllisOriginal Source:

Throughout the 19th century, even as people began to dress in European-style tailored clothing, they continued to wear wrappers as outer coverings, as the social skin they presented to the outside world.

Dark blue akotifahanaOriginal Source:

The most expensive and luxurious cloth of their day, they were occasionally gifted by Malagasy queens and kings to high-ranking subjects and to foreign allies. Queen Victoria was sent over ten in her lifetime.

Cream and purple coloured akotifahanaOriginal Source:

Unravelling the Origins and Meanings of Akotifahana

British artisans were active in Madagascar from 1820 and some scholars assumed they introduced the dyes and techniques that gave rise to akotifahana. New research suggests that influences on the colour palette more likely emanated from Oman in southern Arabia. Omani traders sold Malagasy weavers skeins of silk, pre-dyed in the colours popular in Oman. 

AkotifahanaRoyal Ontario Museum

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.

Multi-coloured akotifahanaOriginal Source:

Evidence for these new interpretations comes from sources both old and new: missionary letters, royal records, 19th century Malagasy writings, and state-of-the-art dye testing of cloth dyes. Dye tests reveal that akotifahana are primarily coloured with local natural dyes, including turmeric.

Multi-coloured akotifahana Multi-coloured akotifahana (c. 1880-1890)Original Source:

Multi-Coloured Akotifahana

c. 1880-1890

Sangodana - Spinning Top

Multi-Coloured Akotifahana

c. 1880-1890

Lava Bokatra

Cream and purple coloured akotifahanaOriginal Source:

Human Couples

Vokovoko - Cross Shapes

Poaka - Explosion

Teachers and their Pupils by William EllisOriginal Source:

Akotifahana in the Words of a 19th Century Malagasy Author

Madagascar has a long tradition of literacy. Scribes used Arabic script until 1820, when British missionaries introduced the Roman alphabet and widely taught reading and writing. By 1863, there were 35,000 boys and girls enrolled in school.

Manuscript of the Ombiasy by UnknownRoyal Ontario Museum

The most detailed historic description of akotifahana cloth comes from a little-known 1870 journal of an anonymous Malagasy author. He reveals the secular nature of the cloth and emphasizes the weaver’s artistic freedom.

"...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

SafflowerOriginal Source:

Colours as Clues: Dye Testing at the Canadian Conservation Institute

In 2010, the internationally renowned Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) of Ottawa began testing the dyes of ROM’s Madagascar silks. The analysis was performed using a novel gas chromatograph-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) methodology, developed at the CCI.

Jennifer Poulin, Senior Conservation Scientist by © Government of Canada, Canadian Conservation Institute, CCI 125233-0003Original Source:

Testing Dyes

Identifying dye sources can help to trace foreign influences and date individual pieces. Synthetic dyes were commercialized only after 1856, providing a general dating threshold. In addition, testing can now identify a precise industrial colourant and the year of its invention. 

Here, Senior Scientist Jenny Poulin of the Canada Conservation Institute tests samples of ROM akotifahana fibres.

Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) by © Government of Canada, Canadian Conservation Institute, CCI 99405-0008Original Source:

The CCI testing reveals for the first time that the vibrant colors of akotifahana are mostly of natural sources available locally:

Akotifahana brocaded wrapperOriginal Source:

Yellow from turmeric root (Curcuma longa (= C. domestica), Zingiberaceae)

Blue from indigo leaves (Indigofera spp., Fabaceae)

Black from tannic tree bark or leaves

Indian Ocean Madagascar (Malagasy) TypesLIFE Photo Collection

Cycles of Fashion: Modern Akotifahana

By the 1890s, large coloured akotifahana wrappers continued to be used as burial cloth, but they had fallen from popularity as fashionable dress. In their place, women began to wear small versions, often of a subdued white-on-white pattern. As the 20th century progressed, women largely stopped wearing silk shoulder wraps altogether.    

Cream-coloured brocaded akotifahana Cream-coloured brocaded akotifahana (C. 1880)Original Source:

Ivory-Colored, Brocaded Akotifahana

C. 1880

This cloth and the next — which are 100 years apart — demonstrate that cycles of fashion occur everywhere in the world.

Akotifahana brocaded sampler Akotifahana brocaded sampler (2010)Original Source:

Akotifahana Brocaded Sampler


Cream and purple coloured akotifahana Cream and purple coloured akotifahana (c. 1850-1870)Original Source:

Revived Traditions

Since 2000, a renewed search for Malagasy identity in the face of globalization has revived the making and wearing of colourful akotifahana. Textile designers are creating new colour combinations and motifs while some consumers are requesting historic motifs from the 19th century. In addition, large akotifahana continue to be made for burial wraps. This patronage may ensure the continuation of the art form into the next century. 

Credits: Story

For more information:

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.

Further Reading
Campbell, Gwyn. 2012. David Griffiths and the Missionary ‘History of Madagascar’. Leiden: Brill.

Domenichini-Andrianina, Mireille. 1988. Le Travail de la Soie sur les Hautes Terres de Madagascar, une Approche Technologique. Mémoire de Maîtrise d'ethnologie , Université de Paris X-Nanterre.

Ellis, William. 1867. Madagascar Revisited. London: John Murray (1972 reprint by Books for Libraries Press).

Ellis, William. 1858. Three Visits to Madagascar during the Years 1853-1854-1856: Including a Journey to the Capital, with Notices of the Natural History of the country and of the Present Civilisation of the People. <ii>London: John Murray.

Ellis, William. 1838. History of Madagascar, Comprising Also the Progress of the Christian Mission established in 1818, and an Authentic Account of the Persecution and Recent Martyrdom of the Native Christians , 2 vols. London: Fischers, Son & Co.

Fee, Sarah. 2013. Chasing Silk: a search for meaning and memory in Madagascar’s illustrious textiles. ROM Magazine pp. 26-33.

Fee, Sarah. 2013. The shape of fashion: the historic silk brocades (akotifahana) of highland Madagascar. African Arts Autumn, 46(3): 26-39.

Kreamer, Christine Mullen and Sarah Fee, eds. 2002. Objects as Envoys: Cloth, Diplomacy and Imagery in Madagascar. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Philadelphia Museums. 1906. Notes on the Madagascar Collection. Philadelphia: The Commercial Museum.

Peers, Simon. 1995. The Working of Miracles. Photography in Madagascar, 1853-1865. Antananarivo: The British Council.

Peers, Simon. 1997. William Ellis: Photography in Madagascar 1853-1865. History of Photography 21 (1): 23-31.

Peers, Simon. 2004. History and Change in the Weaving of Highland Madagascar. in:
Unwrapping the Textile Traditions of Madagascar, ed. Chaprukha Kusimba, J. Claire Odland, and Bennet Bronson, pp. 144-154. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

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