West Africa is known for textile designs, which have been attracting a lot of interest for the past 200 years. West African textiles are strikingly vibrant, authentic, and reflect the cultural heritage of its dwellers. Fabrics are made with distinctive styles and techniques that include dyeing for various purposes. There are several publications which state that West African fabric designs were being influenced by Europeans, especially the Dutch company VLISCO, but it’s the other way around.
West Africa has always had a rich textile industry dating back to Timbuktu and Burkina Faso. In fact, West African styles inspired VLISCO patterns. VLISCO introduced the first African Wax Print known as Ankara to the continent in the late 1880s after learning the Batik art during Indonesia’s colonisation. These fabrics have become popular in Africa, inspired by African stories.
History of West African Textiles
Before we talk about the history of African textiles, let’s discuss how fabric production began in the continent. Fabric production in Africa dates to 5000 BC in Ancient Egypt where flax was grown to create linen fabrics. North Africa had a prosperous textile industry cultivated raw materials from tree barks, flax, cotton, animal hides, etc. There are early depictions, hieroglyphics, and sculptures of Egyptians in cloth dresses to prove the origin of this material.
Around 2,000 B.C.E., depictions of early looms and remnants of linen materials were found on Egyptian tombs like the tomb of Khnumhotep. The first looms had no heddles. Later, single-heddle looms were discovered in the tombs before vertically mounted single heddles became a thing by the 18th century.
The Egyptians weren’t the only country known for its fabric making then. Even their Southern neighbour, the Nubians, had a prosperous textile industry. The flourishing textile production spread to other African countries like North Sudan, Burkina Faso, Mali, Cameroon, and Nigeria. Explorers discovered some of the oldest surviving African textiles at Kissi, a site in Northern Burkina Faso. Some fragments of this fine short animal hair found their way to Benin City, Nigeria, Ghana, DR. Congo, and Mali between the 12th and 13th century. Ibn Battuta, a prominent explorer, discovered some weavers in the Mali empire in the 1300s. The introduction of Islam in West Africa further pushed the popularity of African fibres like the Bogolan in Mali, as worshippers began wearing clothes made from the fibre. The Bogolan is a hand-woven fabric.
In the 14th century, these textiles were used as a form of currency. However, they were turned into different materials using techniques like strip weaving. The textiles were woven into horizontal or vertical looms. We can say that the first set of artisans began in that era. Fabrics like the Asante Kente became a prominent material in Ghana after the Asante tribe learned the art of strip weaving in the 18th century. Kente refers to the basket and the checkerboard pattern of the clothes. Today, Kente is worn to various occasions and well concentrated among the high-class society. It was rumoured that the British explorers were wowed by the beauty of the Ashanti King’s attire during a visit to Ghana.
Cameroon also has a rich history when it comes to the textile industry. Some fabrics are designed from the Obom and raffia. The Kings wore finely woven clothes made from these fibres. The clothing production also extended to the Central Africa Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo. The Kuba people of DR. Congo also uses raffia to make clothes.
North African societies emphasise the use of cotton and other natural fibres for weaving clothes. The texture and embroidery attracted other Africans. Although these fibres grew in prominence, it was the dyeing techniques, which were employed in Nigeria and other West African countries, that turned these fibres into a global appeal. As a result, Nigeria became the centre of dyers and artisans. The two common dyeing techniques used were tie-dye and batik.
The batik method puts the fabric through waxing to create beautiful designs. In the 17th century C.E., the method became adopted by Asians. That’s why it is suspected that batiks came into Nigeria and West Africa through Asia trade routes. The western part of Nigeria integrated batik into their culture and has since gained popularity in contemporary clothing production.
The Nigerian Aso Oke, meaning top cloth, is the most popular hand-woven cloth of the Yoruba tribe or the Western part of Nigeria. Traditionally indigo or purple, Aso Oke needs the hand-spun thread to be dyed several times to achieve its deep blue hue. They are made in such a way as to prevent the embroidery from getting washed. Aso Oke is worn during major ceremonies, such as naming events and weddings.
A Few African Textiles: Adire, Asoke, Wax Hollandais, Bogolan, Kente, Fila
African textiles are becoming more prominent in the world due to their distinctive style, cultural significance, and history. Influenced by its rich culture and history, African textiles are used by Africans to express themselves and as a form of communication. They are known for their bold designs and vivid colours.
Before now, African textiles were overshadowed by sculpture and art but are now becoming an important medium artists use in connecting the past and the present. They also showcase our sophisticated social, religious, spiritual, and economic lives.
Some of the well-known African textiles include Adire, Aso Oke, Bogolan, Kente, and Fila.
Adire is an indigo cloth from the Southwest, Nigeria. Also known as Yoruba tie and dye, this cloth is produced by Yoruba women using various resist-dyeing methods. After undergoing a series of resist-dyeing methods, the material produces vibrant arrays of hues.
The earliest form of this design is on cotton cloth hand spun locally. In the 20th century, access to cotton in large quantities became possible due to the expansion of the European textile trade to Abeokuta, Ogun State of Nigeria. That’s why Abeokuta is regarded as the capital of Adire making in the country. The tradition of indigo dyeing dates to the 11th century in the Kingdom of Mali.
Celebrities and globally recognized , such as Michelle Obama, Rihanna, and Beyonce, have all been seen in adire-inspired clothes. We have several adire-patterned items in our store. Popular Hollywood movies like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and The Woman King showcased adire and African textiles and attires in various forms.
Aso Oke is a hand-woven strip cloth from the Southwest, Nigeria. Also known as tops cloth, it is a vibrant, hand-woven material that’s highly appealing. It is produced from three methods. First, the cotton plants are harvested and then processed by hand through a local Spindler. The next step involves sorting the cotton. This involves using the hand to remove the dirt from the spun cotton. The final step is dyeing the cotton and weaving it to create a wonderful and timeless pattern.
Aso Oke is traditionally worn to special ceremonies, such as festivals, naming ceremonies, birthdays, weddings, etc. It is worn to make a bold statement in an event, with its contemporary design and brilliant colours. We have several items made with Aso Oke in the store.
Wax Hollandais is a unique material from Vlisco made with high-quality 100% cotton yarn. Also known as the Dutch Wax Print or Ankara, the material was introduced by the Dutch who had learnt batik during the trans-Sahara trade. The Netherlands and other parts of Europe began producing wax prints using this machinated dyeing process and exporting them to Africa by the 19th century.
Wax Hollandais is spun at a high density and woven to produce a durable fabric that feels super soft on the skin. This wax-print fabric is also known for its versatility and comes in different shades of colours and designs. Whether you are going to a wedding or attending an award ceremony, this Vlisco material won’t disappoint.
We have different Vlisco-inspired items in our store, so check them out today!
Bogolan is a mud cloth that originated from the Mande tribe of Mali. Known in the Bambara language as “made of earth,” bogolan was initially reserved for warriors and hunters. However, the art of producing the material spread to other countries like Guinea and Burkina Faso. Since then, artisanal production has become prominent.
As mentioned, this is one of the earliest fabrics produced in West Africa. It is a cotton material, handmade with patterns of yellow and black, with a touch of brown. Each pattern and colour used have a specific meaning. Bogolan was first commercially exported in 1970.
Kente cloth is one of the most significant and distinguished textiles in Africa. Once known as the “cloth of kings,” this fabric is typically associated with high social status and esteemed people in Ghana. Kente originated in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. Kente Wax production began in a small town known as Bonwire, Ghana, as early as 1000 AD. Weavers from Ewe and Akan used the strip weaving technique to make this cloth.
In the 1980s and 90s Kente’s popularity exploded when it was seen on television and in the mass media worn in garments. During graduations, political and public events Kente was worn as sashes, kufis, bow ties and skirts. Recording artists sported Kente garments in music videos and public appearances.
Fila is a dye-painted African textile from the Senufo tribe of Ivory Coast. Sometimes called the Korhogo cloth, fila comes in neutral colours and warm tones. It is hand woven and made on hand spun cotton. The designs, which are usually symbols of natural elements, animals, and humans, are drawn on using a stencil. The cloth is highly symbolic, as it acts as a shield against vengeful spirits.
Fila comprises six stripes of cotton that had been sewn together. The production of this fibre began in the late 1960s and has remained popular amongst Senufo cloth makers and Ivorians to this day. However, variations have been made to the modern designs.
Finding African Textiles
Finding African fabrics is no longer difficult, thanks to sites like Etsy. At Nora Okafor, we sell products made from African textiles designed by the best artisans from the Western part of the continent. The colours and patterns in our products are chosen to reflect Africa’s journey and rich culture and shows the world our creative minds. We believe togetherness and joy can be fostered when we showcase our culture through our beautifully crafted product. From Kaftans to pillow covers, we have a wide range of patterned items for purchase. Check us out today!
African Textiles Today, by Chris Spring
Illustrates how African history is read, told, and recorded in cloth.
African Textiles, by Duncan Clarke
“A landmark volume on one of the world’s major art forms, and an important influence on contemporary fashion.”