Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts


Copyright 2002 by the author.



The Hausa people of Northern Nigeria have long been known for their production of voluminous robes known as babban riga (Heathcote 1972; Kriger 1988; Lamb and Holmes 1980; Perani and Wolff 1999; Picton and Mack 1979), which are handembroidered in a range of embroidery stitches, materials (mainly cotton and silk), styles, and designs (e.g., fig.1). Until recently, the embroidery of these robes was primarily done by men (Heathcote 1972, 1979). However, women have taken up this work (fig. 2) in the past twenty years, as men have turned to machine embroidery and other occupations, though women generally sell their robes through male relations or dealers.

This paper considers the situation of Hausa women who hand-embroider in one of the major centers for hand-embroidery in Northern Nigeria, the old, walled section of the town of Zaria, known as Zaria City or Birnin Zazzau. Robes and kaftans, both handembroidered and machine-embroidered that are produced in Zaria City, are available in local shops and are marketed throughout Nigeria (fig. 3a-e). In other words, the production and marketing of these garments is big business and is the major occupation of many men and some women in Zaria City.

For these Zaria City women, hand-embroidery (dinkin hannu) is an important source of income and more accessible without a large cash outlay than other occupations open to them as one Zaria City woman explained:

Before I was selling soup ingredients but now I don’t have money to buy them. But hand-embroidery, you can do it for people [without needing capital] and get money. And especially for us women who stay at home, it is good for us (Interview: QA-3, Zaria City, July 2002).

This woman is referring to the practice of seclusion by married Muslim Hausa women (Callaway 1987; Schildkrout 1983), whose respectability (mutunci) rests on their staying at home during the day, while going out under cover of darkness—to visit and pay condolence calls as well as go to Islamic schools at night. Hand-embroidery of babban riga is a particularly suitable occupation for these women as they can work in their homes. However, as will be seen, this situation puts women at a disadvantage when it comes to marketing, particularly if they are producing robes on their own and not doing piece work for someone else. In such cases, they are at a double disadvantage. First, they are subject to the vagaries of the market, as one woman noted:

Before, if you take a babban riga to the tailor to sew it, before he is finished he will find someone to buy it…But now there is no such thing unless you are lucky and you have people like those who have titles [i.e., are rich], who will buy them from you, then you’ll get a profit (Interview: FEAP-RI-4, Zaria City, July 2002).

Second, they face the problem of the honesty of those who are selling robes for them. For example, one woman had to take a man to court to recover some of the money from a robe he had taken to sell for her. The issue of marketing will be discussed in a later section of this paper.

Despite these problems, hand-embroidery has become a principal occupation for Zaria City women, who have used capital provided by government programs to buy the necessary materials (imported cotton brocade, locally made cotton muslin backing, thread) and labor to produce babban riga robes. This paper examines two such government micro-credit programs, the Federal Economic Advancement Programme (FEAP) and the Nigerian Agricultural Co-op and Rural Development Bank Ltd. (NACRDB), and their consequences for women embroiderers as well as one nongovernmental program, Queen Amina Embroidery, started by the author to market handembroidered items for sale in the U.S. Before discussing these programs for the craftproduction as sources of income for these women—which also reflect some of the larger problems associated with artisan enterprises more generally—the specifics of these three programs are discussed in the following section.