Africa is rich in cultures and textiles. They tell a great part of the history of our multifaceted continent.
But nowadays, fabrics such as “Wax” and “Bazin” are wrongly considered as traditionally African, whereas their origins are European (Holland and Italy).
The first fabrics that appeared on a large part of the African continent were made of beaten bark. It was not until the beginning of the 11th century that we observed the emergence of weaving. Until the 19th century, they were reserved exclusively for African kings and dignitaries, a sign of social belonging and wealth. They are true visual languages and tell the story of a royal family, an ethnic group, a people, a region, or a country.
The Baganda tribe from Uganda are craftsmen making ancestral fabrics called “the Mutuba” or “bark textile”. It is a rustic skill, predating the invention of weaving, which has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005. Mutuba is harvested during the rainy season from the trunks of the local Ficus tree, then soaked and beaten for long hours with vigor to soften the fiber and obtain a fine texture with leathery properties. It has a soft texture and an ochre color. Originally made for kings and tribal authorities, today this cloth is still worn for crown ceremonies, healing, and funerals. Men use it like a toga, women also add a belt.
2- Ndebele Fabrics
(South Africa/ Zimbabwe)
Ndebele fabrics originate from the Ndebele people of South Africa and Zimbabwe whose roots date back to the 17th century. The Ndebele are known for their rich traditions of colorful handmade quilts and blankets. These are elegant blankets made of wool with panels of glass beads whose designs have a strong symbolic value and a close link with the marital home and human relationships.
Married women wear the striped beaded blanket on their shoulders called “Isigolwani” and the colorful blanket called “Nguba” to cover their bodies. Men wear the “Iporiyana”, a pectoral made of animal skin and decorated with beads.
3- Raphia fabric
Better known as Batéké raffia but also called Nzoana, Loutsolo, Ntshak, and Nkuta is a fabric originally made by the Téké people of Gabon and the D.R. Congo; it is a plant fiber (from the palm tree) of very high quality with tight meshes whose flexibility allows an easy and very varied use.
Mainly produced in the Batéké Mountains (Gabon), Nzoana is the preferred fabric of the Téké people. It is traditionally worked by the master weavers, guided by “Kira” their Genie. In the past, it was used to make clothes, hats for the notables and also to adorn traditional masks. Nowadays, it is used to make traditional dance and wedding outfits in Gabon or to make hats, baskets, and various accessories such as handbags.
4- Kuba cloth
The Kuba is a loincloth from the DRC’s people traditionally woven using raffia palm fibers.
First, the raffia fibers are stripped and kneaded for an initial softening. The strands are then colored using vegetable dyes, creating the shades of ivory, brown, clay red, and indigo blue that are associated with many arts of the Kuba kingdom. A flatweave textile is then produced on an inclined heddle loom, usually by male weavers.
Whether worn as a skirt or hanging on a museum wall, Kuba cloth is usually identified by bold, graphic black patterns that suggest movement.
Adinkra in Ashanti (Ghana) or Adingra in Abron (Ivory Coast) is a traditional textile that is more represented and developed in Ghana. It is characterized by the fact that it is made by printing on a cotton canvas, unlike other African fabrics that are essentially woven or dyed. The motifs and signs in the form of grids are printed with mangrove ink with a comb and a stamp cut out of a calabash.
On a blank cotton canvas, the hand-woven cloths show traditional two-colored Ashanti and Abron patterns in a checkerboard pattern.
This traditional cloth was originally worn for funerals, but nowadays it is worn for all kinds of official ceremonies, thanks to the multiplicity of its color patterns and the meanings of adinkra signs. The black, red, and brown colors remain for mourning and the other cheerful colors for weddings and baptisms.
Kenté or kita is a traditional fabric from the Akan, Ashanti, Ewe and Krous ethnic groups of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. It is a silk and cotton fabric made up of strips of hand-woven multi-colored fabric. There are more than 350 models and the colors and patterns have a meaning. The fabrication of the Kenté or Kita loincloth is exclusively reserved for men and its commercialization for women. It is an ancestral cultural heritage that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Originally a royal fabric, it was a symbol of nobility, power, and prestige. Nowadays it is worn for special occasions and official ceremonies such as traditional weddings, royal festivals, funerals, and births.
The Raphia Dida loincloth, also known as the “gnigblélokoui”, is a fabric originating from the Krous people, who are mainly present in Côte d’Ivoire. This fabric has been designed to fit the environment of the Krous people.
It is made from bark and twigs of beaten raffia and woven by hand, then dyed exclusively by the women. The fabrication of the Dida loincloth is very long and tedious. It is essentially in Basque red color with mustard yellow patterns. Originally it was reserved for people of high rank, but nowadays it is generally worn at major traditional ceremonies such as weddings, births, baptisms, and cultural festivals.
8- Korhogo cloth
The Korhogo cloth is made by the Sénoufos people from Ivory Coast. The Bogolans of Mali and the Korhogo clothes are made using the same technique. The motifs are sacred and represent a desire for maternity and health. It is the fetishist (teller of sacred things) who indicates the symbolic subjects to be represented on the canvas. The weaving itself has a symbolic value because it evokes the word that created the world. The width of the fabric is obtained by sewing together the strips (spinning and weaving of cotton).
Nowadays this cloth is generally used as a decorative object in the homes of its contemporaries.
9- Fulani Blanket
The Fulani blanket is a blanket weaved by the Fulani people of Mali in West Africa. It is a very heavy fabric made from sheep’s wool, whose making and secrets are exclusively reserved for men, the “Maboudes”, who pass it on in a hereditary way. The women are responsible for spinning and dyeing the blanket by hand. Depending on the artisan weaver, the blanket can generally measure between 1m80 and 2m40 in length and about 20 cm in width.
The Fulani people are desert nomads and use these blankets in periods of cold or strong winds to protect themselves against the weather and temperature changes in the desert. Once they no longer need them, they sell them to merchants who repair them and then sell them to other peoples such as the Ashantis of Ghana who use them to cover their drums.
Bogolan is a fabric originating from Mali, more precisely from Bélédougou in the Bamako region. It is a thick fabric made of spun and woven cotton. Once made, the cotton strips are sewn together by hand. The colors of the Bogolan are obtained from the decoction of tree leaves and its patterns are made with clay. The motifs painted on the cloth represent either the identity of the population, the village, or even the artist who made it.
The Bogolan was traditionally worn by hunters, pregnant women, or women in menstruation to protect them from evil spirits. Nowadays it is worn all over the world and for all sorts of special occasions.
Adire is from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria. Adire, which means “to knot and dye”, was first applied to indigo-dyed fabrics decorated with strong patterns in the early 20th century. Today, Adire is wrongly associated with a wide range of colorful fabrics. Originally produced only by women, today Yoruba men also take part in its production following two production techniques. In one, the white cotton cloths are tied with raffia before being dyed so that the dye does not reach unwanted areas. In the second method, the cloth is painted with a pen or stencil using a paste made from cassava or yam.
In the past, the production of Adire was a knowledge that could only be transmitted by birth and was forbidden to those who were not part of the family that held this art, but today this prohibition is no longer in place. Unfortunately, this ancestral knowledge is being lost and may even disappear as fewer and fewer craftsmen practice it.
It is worn for special occasions and celebrations such as wedding ceremonies.
12- Aso Oke
Aso Oke comes from the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria. Aso Oke means “superior fabric”. Because of its long and tedious production, it is the most prestigious handwoven fabric of the Yoruba people in Nigeria. It is woven exclusively by Yoruba women from cotton and silk. Aso oke is traditionally worn at major ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, naming ceremonies, and important religious festivals. It is a cultural element and an important mark of the identity of the Yoruba people.
Ndop is a product of the Bamileke people of Cameroon. Originally a sacred fabric with traditional meaning, which was only reserved for royal families, notables, and members of secret societies, Ndop is made from a white cotton fabric on which the craftsman sketches indigo-dyed cotton strips with white geometric or animal motifs embroidered with raffia. As an ink, the craftsman uses wood fire ash mixed with water and raffia bark to draw the lines, and the base of a storm lamp to draw the circles.
Then, on the tracings with raffia thread, the craftswomen make a ligature, a very tight coiled stitch technique, to block the dye. In this way, they proceed to reserve the drawings which will remain white after the dyeing. These illustrations symbolize fertility, peace, and prosperity.
Toghu is a traditional fabric from the North West of Cameroon in the town of Bamenda. It is made of black velvet, hand-embroidered motifs, and decorations with yellow, red, and white threads. Cultural heritage and national treasure of Cameroon, Toghu is a traditional royal fabric worn by chiefs and notables. It is worn as a long tunic during celebrations by the Bamilékés, one of the most important ethnic groups in the country. In its modernized version, Toghu takes on several forms depending on the inspiration of the craftsman: dresses, trousers, skirts.
Lepi, a cotton-based fabric also commonly known as “indigo loincloth”, originates from the region of middle Guinea Conakry. It comes from the Peul ethnic group and is worn at weddings, ceremonies, or other important occasions. According to tradition, by wearing this loincloth you are protected from evil spirits. It has a very light texture and is made entirely of natural materials (wood bark and vegetable plants for its dye). It is produced in only one color: indigo in all its shades.
(West and East Africa)
Manjak is woven from cotton by the Manjak people, part of a large ethnic group in West Africa: present in Guinea Conakry, Guinea Bissau, Senegal, Gambia, Ethiopia, and Cape Verde. Manjak, also called “Bléénj” in Guinea Bissau, or “sëru njaago” in Senegal, is handmade from the loom and is characterized by its softness, flexibility, and thickness. It is woven very tightly in narrow strips.
Legend has it that a spirit taught the weaving technique to a Manjak man from the village of Kalëkis (located in the north of Guinea Bissau) who then taught it to his peers.
Only men can make it and women are responsible for dyeing it.
Manjak is a luxury fabric, very symbolic, whose designs tell of the rites, values, and culture of the Mandjak people and is worn mainly on the occasion of major events (baptism, marriage, death).
17- Moroccan Berber Textiles
The Berbers are a group living predominantly in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The Berbers textiles, are typically made by the mothers in families and are meant to serve both as decoration in the home and as wares to sell in souks. Many textile types hold a special meaning to the Berbers, such as the Moroccan wedding blanket, which is sewn by a bride’s female relatives to bring good luck to the marriage.
Authentic Berber textiles are handwoven, typically in wool, and encompass a number of styles that vary by tribe. Common details include geometric motifs such as stars and diamonds, stripes, fringe, metal sequins, and delicate hand-embroidery
18-Habesha Kemis cloth & Netela
Habesha kemis is a dress and Netela is a scarf. They are handmade cloth made of cotton worn commonly by women of Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is very thin and delicate, with the texture of gauze. It is white with colorful intricately woven borders called “ Tibébé”.
The Netela can be worn for general occasions like attending church and can be wear as a belt.