Stitched with History: African Textile and Fashion

New African, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Stitched with History: African Textile and Fashion

African clothing is known for its colourful fabrics and distinctive designs. But few people take the time to examine the cultural significance of African cloth. New African Woman investigated and found this fascinating history, Next time you don that African outfit, wear it with pride.

The presence of textiles in the African world dates back to phoenician times. At various times in history, migration and integration have spread African textiles to different regions of Africa and the world. The colourful clothes of Africa first became a sign of wealth around 1000BC, during the period of the trans-Saharan trade when traders used strip cloth as a form currency.


As a result, African textiles became known worldwide. During the European coastal trade in the 1400s, African fabrics were preferred by traders over European fabrics. Traders used African cloth in the triangular trade of the 17th and 19th centuries. The development of trade with the world established a ruling class in Africa, which in turn developed a need for luxury items. The quality and colour of African textiles became an expression of wealth and knowledge in society and an indication of social hierarchy. For example, the development of kente cloth in the Ashanti (Ghana) illustrates how the use of cloth differentiates people be status-fine kente cloth symbolises leadership.

Types of African cloth

In order of tradition and value-weaves, tie-dyes, batiks and industrial prints represent the four types of cloth Africans use to create clothing. weaving represents a tradition that passes down from father to son and from uncle to nephew and from mother to daughter and aunt to niece. The complexity of the weave, the colour, and the type of thread used, determines the value of the fabric. The use of locally spun threads enhances the value of the cloth, as [some] Africans believe that imported textiles have no ancestral link and therefore less value. Bogolanfini, aso oke, kuba raffia, and kente, offer examples cloth from the countryside north of the Malian capital, Bamako. With rich blacks, browns, and whites, sections of cloths are composed of individual motifs or a combination of motifs such as fish bones, little stars, or squares.


Aso oke, a traditional cloth of the Yoruba, has three main designs: etu, a dark blue indigo dyed cloth (a verse from an If a divination text describes it as the "father of all cloths"); sanyan, a brown cloth woven from the beige silk of the Anaphe moth; and alaari, woven from silk obtained from the Sahara. For the Yoruba, cloth made completely of silk is rare. Strips of silk cloth are communally used as decoration for indigo dyed cloth.

Kuba raffia, the traditional cloth of the Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, remains an example of a tradition of raffia weaving that was once widespread throughout central Africa. kente, probably the best known of African fabrics, is proudly worn by the political authorities and high-ranking officials in Ghana. A colourful fabric of golds, yellows, reds, blacks, greens, and blues, each intricately designed piece of fabric is a functional object that conveys messages about historical and cultural landmarks, philosophical concepts, political thoughts, or religious and moral values of society. All the above-mentioned are examples of woven cloths. But there are others such as indigo cloth in tie-dye and batiks which are cotton fabrics with designs painted on them using a was technique. Batiks and wax prints are more commonly used today in the creation of African clothing. Africans use them not just for everyday wear, but also for creating clothes for special ceremonies and events. The quality of the fabric and the complexity of the design also differentiate everyday wear from formal wear.


Deep meaning of colour

Colours in African cloth are of very important meaning which vary from people to people and cloth to cloth. …

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