The History of Weaving Part 2- Africa
- Textiles in Africa
- Types of traditional African textiles
- Sierra Leone and Liberia
- Burkina Faso and Mali
- West Africa
- Togo and Ghana
- Nigeria and Niger
- Ivory Coast
- Tunisia and the Maghreb
- Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, Ethiopia
- Kenya and Uganda
- Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Congo
- Batik fabric
- Print fabric
- Baskets and Bags
Textiles in Africa
After our 1st ‘history of weaving’ blog, which explores weaves in Asia, we continue the series by discussing the history of weaving in Africa, and present you with various textiles that can be found in this beautiful continent!
African textiles are a part of the cultural heritage of its people. The ancient Egyptians are known to use looms as early as 4000 BC, and wore linen clothing made with fibers from the flax plant, which were beaten and combed. Nubian people would wear cotton, beaded leather and linen clothing. The region along the Nile was a center of cotton manufacturing, which had already been domesticated (~5000 BC) in eastern Sudan.
Cotton was the textile of choice in the sahel region as well, and was traditionally used to make clothing for both genders.
The earliest surviving sub-Saharan textiles date as far back as the ninth century BC, and come from the Igbo Ukwu site in Nigeria. Many of the ancient weaving techniques, patterns and styles are still used today, and remain an important part of African culture.
Traditionally, throughout most of the continent’s regions, the women would spin the thread and dye the yarn, which was made from natural materials, such as animal hair, various plant fibers and tree bark, whereas the men would do the actual weaving. The weavers were sometimes part of a caste-like group, or even slaves to rich families. In some cases, the Yoruba people’s artisans would teach the boys how to weave, and the girls how to spin the yarn. Some of the children would take up weaving as early as 4 years old.
The looms that were traditionally used were the double heddle loom, which was used for narrow strips of fabric, the single heddle loom, which was used for wider spans of cloth, and the ground or pit loom. The heddle-type looms are indigenous to the region, whereas the pit loom is used in specific parts of the continent, and is of Middle Eastern origin.
The African weavers used natural dyes, which were made using various plants, in order to color their yarns, or even their finished cloths. Popular colors included a few shades of brown, green, yellow and red, however the color which has traditionally been the most important by far, is indigo. The artisans would typically combine white or beige cotton fibers with stripes of indigo blue to create one of the most popular designs of African culture.
It is traditionally believed that the art of textile weaving symbolizes human reproduction and resurrection. Because of this idea, the African artisans would not work on their weaves during the night, for fear that they would weave negative elements, like the darkness or the silence of night, into their fabric.
In some cases, even the color of the cloth would have a symbolic meaning. For example, the color of a healer’s white garb might hint at a connection to water spirits, which were believed to promote healing and fertility. Each tribe would have their own textile design, which was used as a way to identify their own people.
Types of traditional African textiles
Sierra Leone and Liberia
Primarily produced in Liberia and Sierra Leone, this kind of textile was made of hand-spun, naturally dyed and handwoven cotton. The weavers would use traditional looms to create four inch wide and about 36 yard long strips of cloth, which could be white, beige, or naturally dyed using kola or indigo blue dyes. The artisans would usually leave the weft undyed, and the produced cloth would usually feature linear, colored stripes.
Burkina Faso and Mali
The Dogon people who inhabit Burkina Faso and Mali make a type of cloth which resembles country cloth, especially in that it is hand-woven and naturally dyed, which features designs made using an undyed warp. The warp would traditionally only be dyed when the weavers needed to create border stripes near the cloth’s ends.
The traditional shirt that Dogon males would wear was white or beige, sometimes even indigo or brown, v-neck vest. Boys’ shirts would sometimes be adorned with tassels. Huntera’ shirts would be sometimes ‘blessed’ with various trinkets, such as jewelry, spikes or other items, which were believed to bless the wearers and improve their success rate.
Very popular in the western regions of Africa, indigo textiles were made by dyeing off white cloth with naturally-made indigo dyes. In order to create the indigo color, the artisans would collect the red or purple flowers of the indigo plant. Indigo was the foundation of ancient textile traditions throughout this region, since clothes dyed in this color were a sign of wealth. The cloth would be dyed by female artisans, however in the communal dye pits of the ancient city of Kano, men could often be seen working as well.
Kofar Mata dye pits, Nigeria 
The Kofar Dye Pits are supposedly the oldest in Africa, and are a great attraction for visitors who are interested in experiencing first-hand the traditional indigo dyeing process, as it has been practiced for over 500 years. There are many dye pits in Kofar mata, but nowadays more than 100 have been left in a state of disrepair, and abandoned.
The pits are the dyers’ livelihood, so it is to be expected that each dyer inherits his pit from his father, to pass it on to the next generation in the future. The process of dyeing fabric indigo involves creating a water and ash mixture to make the glaze, which is then combined with potassium, that acts as a fixative. The dyers add dried indigo twigs into the mix, and the dye is left in a 6m deep pit for a month, in order to ferment. The fabric is dipped in the pit for up to 6 hours, interspersed with intervals of lifting and airing the cloth, in order to allow the mixture to react with the oxygen in the atmosphere. The duration of the process depends on the shade of indigo the dyer is going for.
Finally, the cloth is beaten with mallets, in order to become soft and supple, and it’s ready for the marketplace!
Tie dye fabric
This type of fabric is very popular throughout Africa, especially among the groups that inhabit the region which lies to the east of Nigeria. Among the techniques that are traditionally used for tie dyeing, the most commonly used processes involve stitching the fabric, tying it using bands or even around itself, binding it into tight pleats, or even applying a starchy substance onto it, so as to create areas of the fabric that will not absorb the dye, and will retain the background’s color, instead. This slow and laborious process allows for more varied patterns, and inspires the artisans to create more original designs.
The best type of fabric that is traditionally used to create these traditional cloths is a high quality African ‘brocade’, which is adorned with woven patterns and designs. The tie dyed cloth is used in many everyday items, such as sheets, table runners, drapes and clothes.
Togo and Ghana
Kente cloth is an icon of African cultural heritage around the world, a very special type of hand-woven silk and cotton textile, native to the Akan people of South Ghana. Kente cloth could be viewed as a visual representation of the people’s history, philosophy, ethics, oral literature, religious belief, social values and political thought. Kente cloth originated in the Ashanti Kingdom (17th century AD), but it has its roots in a long tradition of weaving in Africa, dating back to around 3000 BC. This special kind of textile became widely popular in many West African countries. Initially reserved for special religious or social occasions, and seen as a luxury good that should only be used by the king and the royal court, this Akan sacred textile is still considered a prestige item because of the time and the skill it takes to weave.
Traditionally, Kente cloth features colorful stripes, which are typically about 4 inches wide, and 3 or 4 meters long. Each cloth has a unique name and its own meaning, and each of the various designs and motifs bears its own significance, as well. Traditional design would be inspired by historical events, dreams, personal achievements, proverbs, philosophical concepts, oral literature and human or animal behaviors, which were depicted using abstract geometric renditions of objects that were associated with the intended meaning.
The colors that were used to dye the Kente cloths bore a symbolic meaning, as well:
- Red was associated with bloodshed, sacrificial rites and seriousness. It symbolized heightened spiritual and political mood, sacrifice and struggle.
- Blue was associated with the sky, and symbolized spiritual sanctity, good fortune, peace, love and harmony.
- Green was associated with plants, farming, and herbal medicine. It symbolized vitality, fertility, growth, health and rejuvenation.
- Purple and maroon were associated with Mother Earth, and they symbolized femininity (especially in the case of purple), healing and protection against evil spirits.
- White was associated with egg whites and white clay, which was reserved for special rites intended to purify the soul, as well as for celebratory events. It could symbolize the spiritual connection to one’s ancestors, celestial beings or even ghosts, and when used with other colors, such as yellow, green or black, it could also signify strength, spirituality and harmony.
- Grey was associated with ashes, which were used in cleansing rituals, and symbolized spiritual cleansing and balancing.
- Silver was connected to the notion of the feminine aspect of the world, as well as to the moon. Silver was chosen to symbolize calmness, happiness, pureness and joy.
- Gold was connected to the color of gold coins, and derived its significance from their commercial value. It signified elevated privilege, money, grace, higher quality, dignity and spirituality.
- Black was associated with the idea that blackened appearance sometimes denotes an item’s maturity or aging. It symbolized spirituality, the soul’s connection to one’s ancestrors, age, maturity and ability.
The Bonwire kente weaving village in Ghana 
The Bonwire kente weaving village in Ghana is a center for traditional kente cloth production. The weavers’ only source of income are their weaving products, which they sell themselves, and don’t shy away from bargaining, as seen in the following video:
As you can see, this village’s kente cloth is characterized by dazzling, multicolored patterns of bright colors, geometric shapes and bold designs.
There are many Ashanti-style architectural details to enjoy in the village, as well.
Adinkra fabric is a very special kind of textile that features symbolic designs, each of which carries its own meaning! It’s made by sewing panels of colored cotton cloth together. Its size can reach about 3 by 4 yds. The panels, which are usually six in total, are stamped using special tools. The symbols are stamped using a natural, thick black dye that is produced using the bard of indigenous trees. The Adinkra symbols range from simple to very complex, and they often represent scenes and events inspired by the people’s everyday life.
The word ‘Adinkra’ means ‘goodbye’, and the fabric was reserved for appropriate occasions, such as funerals, as a final ‘goodbye’ to the deceased. The colors that are mainly used for this type of fabric were dark shades of brown, red and black, when they were intended for ‘darker’ occasions, such as funerals, whereas they would adopt a brighter palette of white, light shades of yellow and baby blue, when intended for festive occasions.
Nowadays, Adinkra fabric is produced in the regions of Ghana, but the symbols are used on many projects throughout west Africa.
One fantastic weaving village near Kumasi, which does not get nearly as much coverage as it should, is Ntonso. It is considered the home of the Adinkra cloth, since legend has it that 3 men from this village were the first ones to develop this type of fabric.
Ntonso has its own visitors’ center, the ‘Ntonso Craft Village’, which features a museum, where visitors can stamp their own symbols onto a piece of fabric, using a variety of provided tools.
The process of creating the dye is also demonstrated in the museum. There are guides who can also show the visitors around the village, and take them to the location the bark for the dye is collected. Visitors are even allowed to pound the bark and experience the dye creation process first-hand!
Nigeria and Niger
Hausa and Djerma fabric
These two types of fabric are very similar. They are a wider version of the previously mentioned Kente cloth, and they are made using manufactured threads and wider looms. Between the two, Djerma typically features strips that are a little narrower, and it is often more intricate and colorful.
Traditionally, the Fulani people who inhabit Mali have been making wool heavy blankets that they wear during the cold months. These striped blankets are usually about 7 ft long, and feature 8-inch strips. The blankets are traditionally white, but sometimes they can have colored strips; usually yellow, red or even black. The Fulani women were responsible for hand spinning and dyeing the wool, whereas the men would do the actual weaving. Patterns such as stripes, circles, triangles, diamonds and chevrons were widely used in the creation of Fulani blankets, since they depicted symbols pertaining to the people’s myths and pastoral life.
Bogolani fabric or Mud cloth
One of the most outstanding types of mud cloths in West Africa seems to be the Bogolan, which is also known as ‘Bogolanfini’, a name that derives from the words bogo (which means ‘earth’), lan (which means ‘with’), and fini (which means ‘cloth’). The cloth has been traditionally produced by women of various ethnic groups, and was primarily used for special occasions. The knowledge of weaving was passed from one generation to the next, with mothers teaching their daughters how to weave this special type of cloth. It was also worn by men for during hunts, and also on celebrations. Nowadays the cloth is woven by both genders, and sold in markets.
The artisans would use smaller segments of handwoven cotton in various widths and lengths, which they would sew together, to form a larger piece of fabric. The Mud cloth is then treated with a natural yellow fixative solution, which is made using boiled and mashed leaves, with or without the addition of tree bark. There are reports of at least three different methods of performing this initial yellow dyeing process, but they all involve natural materials.
The final step involves the usage of wooden or bamboo sticks to design symbols onto the Bogolani cloth, using mud, and then drying the cloth by laying it under the hot sun. After washing the fabric, the artisans would then wash it, and repeat the process until the desired, deeply embedded color is achieved. When the dyeing process was done, they would wash the cloth using a special emulsion, which would remove any impurities, and brighten the background color. Nowadays mud cloth is available in a multitude of colors, such as gold, yellow, white, brown, and the color of rust.
Traditionally made by the Senufo people around Korhogo in Ivory Coast, this type of cloth is supposedly made using dung in the fixative tincture, giving it a bit of a weird smell as it dries. Just like mud cloth, dung cloth is produced by sewing together natural colored handwoven 5-inch strips. The artisans would then paint onto the cloth using black, brown or rust-colored mud, in order to create various patterns and symbols, such as various animals, people wearing ceremonial clothes, architectural elements and geometrical designs.
The artform of producing this type of textile originates back in 1600, and was developed throughout the historical period of the Dahomey Kingdom, up to 1900. Each King had their own signature symbols and favorite epigrams, which were used to decorate banners, standards, buildings and royal items. These royal symbols, as well as other motifs, can also be incorporated into modern projects’ designs.
The creation of appliqués is considered a proper craft nowadays, and modern artisans tend to use both traditional and contemporary designs. Maps, nature themes and everyday life are some of the modern designs used in the various markets the tourists love to visit, in capital cities of the continent.
Tunisia and the Maghreb
Some of the most sought after textiles of North Africa, are their knotted pile carpets, also known as ‘zerhivas’, whose origins lie in the Middle East, where they were used as both decorative and functional pieces.
The indigenous Berber women traditionally weave short-nap, flat rugs and tapestries (known as klim), some of which are embroidered (and are known as mergum). These weaves’ patterns usually feature diamond and triangles, as well as animal motifs; usually depicting camels.
The Berber people also make ajars, which are hand woven shawls, made of natural black and white wool. They usually feature horizontal bands, which are decorated with supplementary weft patterns. These patterns are woven by weaving wool and white cotton into the cloth, in order to create the designs. Common themes draw inspiration from other traditional arts and crafts, such as traditional silver jewelry, henna body paint designs, and tattoos.
The shawls are dyed in red, blue or black, depending on their intended use, and the wool’s absorbency – as opposed to the cotton threads’ resistance to dyeing – helps create the pattern of the fabric.
The burnous cloths are tightly woven, sleeveless woolen cloaks with hoods, which are worn during the winter by men. They are typically blue or brown, and they date back to the Roman era, and before the Arab conquest. They are traditionally made using camel hair or sheep wool, and each piece can take up to six months to make. A lighter version of these capes, the djebellas, which are worn by both genders, are nowadays available in hundreds of colors, and are still pretty popular; perhaps because of the fact that their design inspired the Jedi robes of the ever-popular Star Wars franchise!
Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, Ethiopia
Natella and Gabior Gabi
There are numerous woven cotton fabric types in East Africa, such as Gabior Gabi and Natella, which are shawls found in Ethiopia. The former is a heavy cloth, which is best described as a throw, or a light blanket. The latter is a light cloth that resembles gauze, which is decorated with a colorful border. Natella shawls are considered very trendy, and are often used to adorn western style clothes, such as jeans.
Another woven cotton fabric from this area is the Kikoi, a piece which resembles a sarong. It is rectangular in shape, and is often decorated with multi-colored bands, which tend to be found near the fabric’s edges. Traditionally, kikois were worn by men on the East African coast, but nowadays they have evolved into a unisex piece of clothing for all ages. The fabric is also used for all kinds of everyday items, such as bags, pillows, robes etc.
The Masai men traditionally wear Shukas , which are basic pieces of fabric featuring red patterns, often plaid tartans, that can be worn in many ways, according to the wearer’s preference. Traditionally made out of animal skins, nowadays it is predominantly made of cotton. In order to create a shuka, the fabric is rubbed with red dye, in order to camouflage the wearer effectively in the red dirt scenery of that region. In areas with dry grass, the shukas can be dyed white for the same reason.
Kenya and Uganda
But there also other types of fabric in East Africa, such as bark cloth, which is made from pieces of bark from various trees that the gatherers collected during the rainy season, and are a renewable resource. After harvesting the bark, the gatherers would wrap the exposed tree trunk with banana leaves, in order to help it heal. The bark would grow back soon, and it could be harvested again. The process could be repeated indefinitely. The harvested pieces of bark would be beaten with mallets, and, when prepared, they would look like a terracotta-colored kind of corduroy, and would feel like silk to the touch.
The women of northern Kenya’s nomadic ethnic groups also wear gorfas, a type of red or black-dyed sheepskin, which is wrapped around their bodies and held in place using rope or leather belts.
This type of fabric is made of twisted fiber, harvested from the inner parts of tree bark. The tree bark may come from Musasa trees, or even the gigantic Baobab trees. The fibers are soaked, in order to become soft, but traditionally, the artisans would also chew the fibers, in order to make them even more supple. The fibers are then dyed and woven together.
Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Congo
Kuba cloth is indigenous to the Kuba people. It is made of tightly woven strands of raffia palm leaves, which are interwoven in order to create detailed geometric designs. It comes in two styles; with or without a pile. The traditional process of producing Kuba cloth involved using vegetable-based dyes on raffia threads, which would be embroidered onto finished cloth pieces, in order to create patterns such as squares, lines, creative curves and circles, each of which would bear its own meaning. Kuba patterns could also be created with appliqué shapes. Small panels of fabric could be sewn together, in order to create a larger piece, like the one pictured above.
In beautiful Botswana, surrounded by idyllic and peaceful scenery, as well as abundant wildlife, lies the Oodi weaving village. The artisans, mostly women, are famous internationally as the Lentswe-la-Odi (Rocky Hills of Oodi) weavers.
Mashamba cloth is a type of cloth which is similar to the Kuba cloth. It is by the Yeyi women, tied around their waists, and is reserved for traditional occasions.
The batik technique was known in Egypt even before the 3rd century BC, so it has an important historical presence in the region. However, the cloth produced in Africa featured fuzzier designs. The artform almost died before the 60’s in Burkina Faso, but thanks to a Peace Corps member who was trying to come up with sustainable income generating activities, the Batik technique was reestablished in East and West Africa, and is viewed as a mainly contemporary art form. The designs were initially created on thicker handmade fabric, but nowadays it has been replaced by thinner, industrially produced cotton textile.
Traditionally, the batik creation process involved stamping, brushing or combing a design made of wax right onto the textile, and allowing it to dry, in order to form areas of the cloth that would resist dyeing. In order to create a multicolored cloth, the dyes would be applied in succession, from the lightest to the boldest. Finally, the wax would be scraped off the fabric, or boiled off it. It was a very complex process, and complicated designs could take up to many months to create!
African print cloth originated from Indonesia, which had a rich batik tradition. This type of textile is also known as wax-resist, Java, lappa, wrappa, pagne or kanga fabric, depending on the region. Nowadays, print cloth is industrially made and machine-printed, and is used for almost anything, from clothing to curtains, since it is attractive and durable.
The designs and patterns change from place to place, and they are very diverse. There are cloths featuring repetitive motifs, proverbs and some prints are even used to commemorate events!
Baskets and Bags
One of the most prominent parts of Africa’s weaving tradition involves the production of baskets, bags, fishing nets and various other everyday items. They are diverse in style, material and design, and they come in all shapes and sizes.
10. African textiles
14. The Maasai
16. Oodi Weavers