In Living Colour: the ROM’s unique collection of textiles from Madagascar

The ROM is home to over 50,000 textiles and costumes. Fifty-four of these come from the African island of Madagascar. That number may sound small, but it represents the second largest collection of Malagasy textiles in North America. And among them are some of the most intriguing and admirable pieces, marvels of technical accomplishment and beauty. Together, they go a long way in illustrating the complex cultural history of this island nation.  

The fourth largest island in the world, slightly larger than the province of Ontario, Madagascar lies off the coast of East Africa. The first permanent settlers of the island likely came from present-day Indonesia – some 6,000 km to the east – around 2,000 years ago. Linguistic and stylistic evidence suggests that these early Malagasy people brought with them the art of loom weaving.

Map: Tom Henrikson ©ROMWeaving raffia on the Malagasy Ground Loom, postcard private collection

Historically, women throughout the island wove and dyed fibres into striped rectangular wrappers. They extracted yarn from tree bark, banana-stem, raffia palm leaves, cotton and indigenous forms of wild silk (Borocera), using handspindle types similar to those found on the African mainland. Sources for the vibrant dyes included plants such as turmeric, indigofera and indigenous nato trees, the bark of which produces the brick-red colour distinctive of many Malagasy textiles.  Using backstrap or ground looms, they wove cloth patterned with stripes, in designs reminiscent of their Southeast Asian forebears. Ikat, a technique for tie-dyeing yarns before weaving to create patterned textiles, has been documented in the northwest corner of the island, and may have arrived with early migrants, together with warp floats and twining.

Overview and detail of the arindrano striping pattern
Madagascar is situated at the crossroads of western Indian Ocean trade routes that link Asia to Africa so it is hardly surprising that local weavers were constantly being exposed to and were integrating new materials and influences coming from India, southern Arabia, and Europe. They used imported coral, coins, glass beads, and local metal beads to decorate cloth.  Particularly in the highlands, weavers came to work with “Chinese silk” (produced all over the world by domesticated silkmoths called Bombyx mori), initially brought by Arab traders, to add glossy stripes to their cloth, or figured motifs made with supplementary wefts.

Characteristic metal beadwork of Madagascar

Wearing shoulder cloths, postcard, private collection

The rectangular cloth was generally intended for clothing, for draping around the body in various fashions. Some groups, such as the Betsimisaraka, tailored raffia lengths into tunics. Other groups have used handwoven cloth to wrap revered ancestors for burial, or as ritual furnishings such as prayer mats.

To the present day, handweaving exists in isolated pockets scattered around the island, where women use techniques and replicate designs documented from hundreds of years ago, while also artfully adapting to the present with new designs, colours and fibres, including cast-off fabrics from local factories.

Our collections of Malagasy textiles here at the Museum are especially rich in items from the central highlands, particularly Imerina, the mountainous seat of the Merina monarchy that came to rule over much of the island after 1770.

Of special interest is a collection of some dozen items associated with the Reverend William Ellis of the London Missionary Society, who visited Madagascar in the 1850s and ’60s. As custom dictated, when Ellis left the island, he was presented with gifts of cloth from Malagasy friends and the Merina court, which is probably how he obtained most of the sumptuous pieces shown here. Ellis’ Canadian descendants donated to the ROM numerous items,  including the world’s only known complete examples of both a mandiavola (“covered in silver”) –  a great shawl of wild silk with metal bead designs across its length – and a totorano, handspun cotton with wild silk bands in blue and red. Ellis also collected incredibly fine checkered raffia cloth, likely an export item for the European market.

Overviews and details of three ROM akotifahana cloths

Another highlight of the ROM’s large collection of historic Merina akotifahana (also spelled kotofahana) cloths, large brocaded shawls made from Chinese silk, which were produced by professional weavers. Of particular interest is a piece donated by the descendants of the missionary William Cousins. Its pristine condition reveals the bright colours that characterized akotifahana in the 1880s.  More recent ROM acquisitions include a palette of magenta, blue, yellow and black that may have characterized early works, as well as rare anthropomorphic motifs.

Dye testing of the ROM’s akotifahana cloth by the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) in Ottawa, using a novel gas chromatograph-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) methodology, developed at the CCI,  reveals that most of the akotifahana’s riotous colours come from natural sources, from plants that are widely available in the island: indigofera, turmeric, tannins. But the testing also produced some surprises: the presence of lac, safflower, cochineal, logwood, and Brazilwood, dyes which all originate in far away Asia and even South America. Their use in 19th century Madagascar handweaving attests to the enduring and widespread trade networks of the island.

Jennifer Poulin, Senior Conservation Scientist, CCI, shows the ROM akotifahana thread samples prepared for testing. Photograph: Canadian Conservation Institute  Dye analysis at the CCI was performed using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry.  Photograph: Canadian Conservation Institute


Dye testing at the CCI on this akotifahana cloth reveals that all the dyes – even the bright pink – of this cloth come from natural sources.
Dye testing at the CCI on this akotifahana cloth reveals that all the dyes – even the bright pink – of this cloth come from natural sources.

Blues = indigo
Yellow = turmeric
Black = tannins
Green = indigo + turmeric
Magenta = safflower
Rust red = turmeric + safflower






Raffia Islamic prayer mats

Intriguing representatives of lowland Malagasy textile traditions at the ROM are a series of raffia Islamic prayer mats. They were likely commissioned from local Sakalava weavers by the resident community of Indian merchants of the Bohra faith. Malagasy weavers used the ikat resist-dye technique to form the outlines of the mirhab niche, which people in prayer orient towards Mecca.

While no museum collection can represent the entire handweaving history of a nation, the ROM’s 54 pieces are windows into the wide and wonderful world of Malagasy textiles, revealing the themes and variations of this little-known artistic heritage.



Link to exhibition: Born of the Indian Ocean: The Silks of Madagascar

Link to Patricia Harris Gallery of Textiles & Costume

Link to Canadian Conservation Institute


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