Africans have been weaving and decorating textile since ancient times. Cloths were initially used to keep the body warm and protected, but soon these fabrics also became vehicles for creative expression, to show love, faith, wealth or status or to commemorate important events. African weaving has become a form of art and communication and many of the traditionally produced textiles are now used in fashion, home furnishings or wall decoration.
Weaving methods and decoration patterns vary greatly within the continent. Fabrics can be made of cotton, silk, raffia or bast fibers and in some inland regions even wool. Dye or paint can be made from soil, greens, fruits, or bark, mixed with water or chemicals to obtain the perfect color. Cloths can be decorated by stamping, (tie)-dyeing, painting, or embroidery. Let’s take a look at some of the more famous fabrics.
Kitenge or ankara
The term ‘African print’ is often associated with the wax print textile called kitenge in East Africa and ankara in West Africa. This cotton fabric in vibrant colors and bold pattern has many uses in African daily life as clothing, scarfs, home decorations or everyday utensils and toys.
The batik wax technique was originally brought from Java to West Africa in the 19th century by the Dutch Vlisco company, who introduced a new technique using roller prints. The Asian market didn’t care for these machine-made, brighter, graphic designs of wax print, but Vlisco found an enthusiastic market for it in West Africa. From West Africa, the fabric spread to other parts of the continent and the designs evolved over time into the distinctly African prints we encounter today.
The colors, patterns and symbols of kitenge designs communicate feelings, commemorate historical events or are named after famous people. The beauty of wax printing is that each piece is unique. One can never make an exact copy of a piece of kitenge.
Kente cloth is Ghana’s national fabric and it remains popular among the ethnic Akan people across West Africa. The Akan call it nwentoma, woven cloth, and it is produced by strip weaving a mixture of silk and cotton yarn and stitching them together. The strip weaving technique can be traced back to the 11th century in West Africa.
Kente cloth has distinct multi-colored patterns in geometric shapes. It was and still is the cloth of kings and in the old days, gold thread would be incorporated to create lavish attires for Ashante royalty.
Hand-woven kente cloth is used for festive dress on special occasions. Each cloth design tells a story about a person or an event. There are cloths named after historical events, like Queen Elisabeth’s visit in 1961, or natural phenomena such as a rainbow or a rising sun. Every new kente design is registered and copyrighted for protection.
Colors and patterns hold significant meaning as well. Colors reflect concepts like wealth (gold), love (blue) or purity (silver). Black represents spiritual energy and aging while white reflects purity. Among the Ewe and Ashante, black and white kente cloth are worn to funerals to celebrate life and mourn death.
Bogolan or ‘mud cloth’ is hand-woven cotton textile from Mali, traditionally dyed with fermented mud in a bold geometric earth-toned pattern. It is important in traditional Malian culture. The best-known version of bogolan is associated with the Bambara people and the center of bogolan production is in the town of San.
The making of bogolan requires technical knowledge and mastery of the cloth’s many symbols. Strips of cotton are woven on narrow looms and stitched together. The cloth is then soaked in a dye bath from mashed leaves of the n’gallama tree, an African birch, which gives it a yellow hue. When it is dry, the cloth is painted with mud that has been fermented for many months and which creates a chemical reaction with the treated cloth leaving a brownish color. To outline the pattern and to obtain a rich brown color, this process has to be repeated many times. After decoration, the cloth is washed to remove the yellow and brighten the background while the brown decorations remain.
In traditional Malian culture the bogolan cloth is thought to have the power to fend off dangerous forces. Bogolan tunics were worn by Bamana hunters as camouflage and to protect them, and women wore the cloth for ritual protection when they reached adulthood or after they gave birth. Bogolan cloth has become a symbol of Malian cultural identity and is being promoted as such by the Malian government. Today it is popular with young people as a fashion statement or to express their national identity as a Malian.
The Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo are masters of the arts. The Kuba kingdom flourished in the 17C when wealthy patrons supported arts and fashion and artisans started creating sophisticated masks, statues and the now famous Kuba cloth.
Kuba cloth is an exquisite textile that is tightly woven using strands from raffia palm leaves in beautiful geometric patterns. It is a complex production involving the participation of the whole family. Once the cloth is woven, it is embroidered with dyed raffia threads to create patterns with rectangles, lines, curves and circles. The patterns have names and are passed through generations, but there is plenty of room for individual artistry. Sometimes applique and patchwork are used, which like the embroidered cloth, range in complexity and style.
Kuba cloth is traditionally used for ceremonial skirts that are wrapped around the waist in many layers. But nowadays, the textile is also used for wall hangings, pillow cases or mats for sitting and sleeping.
This article appeared originally in Inzozi Magazine, Dec 2018