Pelete bite is a fabric created by the Kalabari Ijo peoples of the Niger Delta region by cutting threads out of imported cloth to create motifs.

The Details

In the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Africa (2010), author Joanne B. Eicher describes the origins and appearance of pelete bite:

“made from Indian madras (injiri), which is a plaid or checked cotton textile handwoven in India and imported into the Niger Delta for perhaps more than two hundred years. Ordinarily women or girls, but sometimes men, make pelete bite from various patterns of madras… The color palette is limited: background colors of indigo, red, and burgundy (sometimes dark green) offset with white, yellow, and black… After choosing a textile, the maker uses a needle to pick up an individual thread, then, with a penknife or razor blade, cuts it on two ends and pulls out the thread, continuing to do this over the whole cloth. Various shapes result from the openings in the original plaid or checked fabric, depending on the maker’s imagination or decision to repeat motifs that she has made or seen before.”

The pelete bite pictured in figure 1, from the Dallas Museum of Art, features intricate motifs cut into red and blue cloth. Motifs included on this cloth are: “wineglass stem,” “fish gills,” “masquerade triangles,” “checkerboard,” and “mat.”

In figure 2, the pelete bite was created from commercially imported madras cotton. Using imported cotton to create pelete bite is characteristic of the textile. In this example from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, the fabric is blue and gray.

Cut-thread cloth (pelete bite)

Fig. 1 - Madame Amonia Akoko (Nigerian, c. 1940-). Cut-thread cloth (pelete bite), ca. 1980. Cotton; 7m 28.98 × 88.27 cm (287 × 34 3/4 in). Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 2014.47. Gift of Joanne B. Eicher. Source: DMA

Pelete Bite

Fig. 2 - Artist unknown (Kalabari Ijo). Pelete Bite, 20th Century. Commercial imported madras cotton; 139.7 x 194.3 cm (55 x 76 1/2 in). New York: Brooklyn Museum, 1990.132.7. Purchased with funds given by Frieda and Milton F. Rosenthal. Source: Brooklyn Museum


Fig. 3 - Artist unknown (Kalabari Ijo). Cloth, unknown. Cotton; 175 x 87.50 cm (68.9 x 34.4 in). London: The British Museum, Af1981,11.6. Purchased from Prof. J Eicher. Source: British Museum

In Dress and Ethnicity: Change Across Space and Time (1995), author Barbara Sumberg describes the process of creating pelete bite:

“’Pelete bite is made by removing selected threads from imported Indian madras or injiri to create a wholly new design and look to the fabric. This art is practiced solely by Kalabari – women predominately, though not exclusively – and the resulting cloth is thought of as traditional Kalabari cloth (Erekosima and Eicher 1981). Nembe [people of the Niger Delta region] buy and wear pelete bite.’ and that: ‘The Kalabari attach much cultural significance to the wearing of pelete bite wrappers, which is the quintessential Kalabari cloth.’”

In figure 3, a checked design is created by cutting threads of this purple and yellow fabric. Pelete bite is used in many significant events in a Kalabari Ijo person’s life.

In the article “Cloth is the Center of the World: Nigerian Textiles, Global Perspectivesin African Arts (2003), Victoria L. Rovine writes about the meaning and significance of pelete bite for Kalabari society:

“Pelete bite represents a fascinating amalgamation of local and international influences. By carefully cutting and removing threads from striped or plaid Indian madras to create openwork patterns, Kalabari women transform an imported commodity, into an emblem of Kalabari ethnicity… The Kalabarization of this cloth is particularly striking, for not only the cloth but also the tools by which it is made (needles and knives) are acquired through trade… Mythological heroines are said to have worn powerful magic cloth, described in praise songs as having the same symbolic motifs as pelete bite. Many of those motifs refer to important mythological and historical knowledge, held by women who pass the symbols on to future generations as they teach the technique.”

In figure 4, the lightest threads are removed from the imported cotton the designs were created in the pelete bite. Removing the lighter threads is a common way of creating these designs.

Pelete bite wrapper

Fig. 4 - Artist unknown (Nigerian). Pelete bite wrapper, 1930s. Cotton; 363 x 87 cm (11 ft. 10 15/16 in x 34 1/4 in). New York: Cooper Hewitt, 1988-56-1. Museum purchase from General Acquisitions Endowment Fund. Source: Cooper Hewitt