The History of African Textiles and Fabrics
Many centuries ago, hair from animals was woven to insulate and protect homes. Hair, along with fibers from various plants and trees, were used to create bedding, blankets, clothing, and wall, window and door hangings. As textiles became more sophisticated, they were also used as currency for trading. Many of the ancient designs and weaving methods are used today and remain an important part of African lifestyles.
Weaving methods and fibers used today varies within the African continent. For instance, narrow strip weaving is used in West Africa and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly called Zaire). However, the weaving is slightly different in the Democratic of Republic in that they incorporate raffia palm leaf to create their Kuba cloth.
Handmade looms are still used today to weave various textiles. The looms are usually handed down from generation to generation. During the weaving process, they are placed in horizontal, vertical, or angular positions.
Textiles are often enhanced through hand-stamping, stenciling, dyeing, painting, or embroidery. Sometimes soil is used to make paint, and dyes can originate from herbs, leaves, bark, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and grasses; these are mixed with water or other chemicals such as zinc, sulfur, or iron to obtain the desired thickness and hue. Colors hold different cultural meanings based on village or family affiliations. In some parts of Nigeria, red is a threatening color worn by chiefs to protect them from evil, but it is a sign of accomplishment in other areas, while red is used for mourning robes by the Akan in Ghana and for burial cloths in Madagascar.
Traditionally, many African textiles were not cut or tailored. Instead, they were draped and tied to suit various occasions.
But with the current interest in textiles outside of Africa, textiles and handmade fabrics are being cut and fashioned into contemporary clothing and home furnishings, including pillows, upholstered furniture, wall hangings, blankets, and throws. When authentic African textiles are fragile or rare, we recommend having them professionally mounted or framed for use as wall hangings.
Glossary of African Textiles and Fabrics
Asoke cloth is very sturdy and practical. The Yoruba in Nigeria reserved this cloth for funerals, religious rituals, and other formal occasions. This cloth is woven in 4-inch wide strips that vary in length. Some older Asoke cloths are characterized by their openwork or holes. It is known for supplementary inlays, which are generally made of rayon threads on a background of silk cotton.
Adinkra cloth is made by embroidering wide panels of dyed cotton and stamping them with carved calabash symbols. Adinkra patterns are numerous, ranging from crescents to abstracts forms; each of the symbols carries it own significance and represents events of daily life activities. As stated in “The Spirit of African Design”, Adinkra means “farewell” and was used for funerals and to bid a formal farewell to guests. Dark colors, like brick red, brown, or black, were associated with death while white, yellow, and light blue were worn for festive occasions. The cloth is still produced in Ghana today.
Adire cloth comes from Nigeria. There are two types of Adire. One is made by tie dying or by stitching a design with raffia. The second method is painted freehand or stenciled using a starchy paste made from cassava or yams. Both styles of Adire can be found today.
Batik cloth includes patterns by applying melted wax on the fabric. A design is drawn onto the fabric. To produce a multicolor effect, colors are applied one top of the other, beginning with the lightest color. For instance, a cloth is dyed yellow, and then melted wax is applied to areas that are yellow. The cloth is dried after each stage of the dyeing process, and then the wax is removed by scraping or boiling it off the cloth.
Ewe cloth is similar to the Asantes’ kente cloth. This cloth is named after the Ewe people who originated from the southeastern region of Ghana. There are two types of Ewe cloth. Wealthy people wear a type of Ewe cloth that is elaborately decorated. It’s made of silk, rayon, or cotton, and typically contains inlays of symbols representing knowledge, ethnics, and morals as applied in one’s daily life. The other type is made from simple cotton fibers and display modest patterns. It also contains smaller and simpler versions of the more elaborate designs, but they always have a beauty of their own.
Khasa consists of heavy woolen striped blankets that are woven by the Fulani of Mali. The textile is typically 6 to 8 feet long and woven in 8-inch wide strips. Although the traditional blanket is white, it is also common to have yellow, black, or red strips. Khasa is usually ordered for the cold season.
Kente cloth originated from the Fante people of Ghana, who sold this fabric in baskets. The Fante word for basket is “kenten”. Authentic Kente cloth is typically woven in 4-inch wide strips. Kente patterns have religious, political, and even financial significance. Today, there’s a pattern to indicate the importance of almost any special occasion, and colors are chosen to reflect customs and beliefs. Red represents death or bloodshed, and is often worn during political rallies; green stands for fertility and vitality, and is worn by girls during puberty rites; white means purity or victory; yellow represents glory and maturity and is worn by chiefs; gold is for continuous life, is also worn by chiefs; blue represents love and is often worn by the queen mother; and black meaning aging and maturity and used to signify spirituality. Because of its vibrant beauty and regal legacy as a cloth fit for kings and queens, authentic Kente remains one of the most popular fabrics on the market today.
Korhogo cloth is made by the Senufo people of the Ivory Coast. Approximately 5-inch strips are hand-woven. Mud is painted on the cloth to create patterns of animals, men in ceremonial dress, buildings, or geometric designs. The soil used to make this mud is usually black, brown, or rust and is collected throughout West Africa. This textile, which comes in various lengths and widths, is used for clothing as well as for pillows, wall hangings, and folding screens.
Kuba cloth originated from the Democratic Republic of Congo (also known as Zaire). This textile is tightly woven using strands from raffia palm leaves. Raffia strands are also interwoven between the warp and weft to create intricate geometric patterns. Kuba cloth comes in two styles. One has a rich and velvety pile; the other has a flat weave will little or no pile. To create Kuba cloth, vegetable dyes are used on raffia threads that are then embroidered onto finished cloth to create patterns such as rectangles, lines, creative curvatures, and circles. Kuba cloth is used for ceremonial skirts, wall hangings, or mats for sitting and sleeping.
Manjaka cloth is woven in 7-inch wide strips that are sewn together; this textile is distinguished by its intricate geometric patterns. Manjaka originated from Guinea-Bissau and has complex designs. For example, if a section of Manjaka cloth has triangles, the background area will feature a different pattern.
Mud cloth originated from Mali and once worn by hunters. Mud cloth is made from narrow strips of hand-spun and hand-woven cotton, which are sewn together in various widths and lengths. The cloth is first dyed with a yellow solution extracted from the bark of the M’Peku tree and the leaves and stems of the Wolo tree; the solution acts as a fixative. Then, using carved bamboo or wooden sticks, symbolic designs are applied in mud that has been collected from riverbanks and allowed to ferment over time. After the mud is applied to the cloth, it is dried in the sun. The process is repeated several times to obtain a rich color that is deeply imbued in the cloth. When it reaches the desired hue, the cloth is washed with a caustic solution to remove debris and to brighten the background. Today, mud cloth comes in background shades of white, yellow, purple, beige, rich brown, and rust.
African Brocade fabric is made from 100% cotton. Unique designs are intricately woven into shiny and starchy fabric. This cloth is also called Basin fabric. Brocade or Basin fabric is very popular in West Africa.
African Tie Dye Fabric is popular in Africa. A common method of tie dyeing is the formation of patterns of large and small circles in various combinations. This is found particularly among people from Senegal, Gambia, and the Yoruba of Nigeria. There are several techniques used for resist-dyeing. For instance, a cloth is tied or stitched tightly so that the tying or stitching prevents the dye from penetrating the fabric, and sometimes-starchy substance is applied to the textile. This will resist the dye giving pale areas on a dark background when it’s washed at the end of the dyeing process. Another method of tie dyeing consists of folding a strip of cloth into several narrow pleats and binding them together. The folds and the binding resist the dye to produce a cross-hatched effect. A very popular tie-dyeing technique in Nigeria is to paint freehand with starch before dyeing in indigo in order to resist the dye. These are only a few examples of tie-dyeing methods used in Africa today.
African Print fabrics are reproductions and machine made. This fabric can endure heavy wear and tear.
African Textiles and Dyeing Techniques by Claire Polakoff
The Spirit of African Design by Sharne Algotsson and Denys Davis
African Textiles by John Picton and John Mack
© Textiles and Fabric of Africa, 2009.
Written by Victoria Saho