Cloth in West African History

By Rovine, Victoria L. | African Studies Review, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Cloth in West African History


Rovine, Victoria L., African Studies Review


Colleen E. Kriger. Cloth in West African History. Lanham, Md.: AltaMira Press, 2006. xxii + 214 pp. Photographs. Maps. Charts. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $80.00. Cloth. $32,95. Paper.

Cloth is a paradoxical raw material for the reconstruction of history. When used as clothing, its most common manifestation, cloth is highly visible, often revealing cultural values and social strata as well as aesthetic preferences. It is also highly mobile, leaving a record of travel, trade, and gift contacts. These factors make it a rich source of historical information.

Yet cloth also presents particular challenges as a primary document for historical research. Cloth itself is ephemeral; often used until it wears out, it rarely survives in archaeological contexts. Descriptions of cloth and clothing in travelers' accounts or trade records are often colored by the observers' own expectations and by the close link between dress and perceptions of morality (or immorality). Colleen E. Kriger undertakes an ambitious task in employing cloth and clothing as the raw material for her investigation of complex histories in West Africa, centered on the lower Niger River region. She succeeds in demonstrating that textiles and clothing can serve as windows onto richly layered African histories.

Taking three specific textiles as her starting points, Kriger follows their threads (to use an irresistible metaphor) to linguistic, archaeological, literary, economic, political, technological, and iconographic forms of historical evidence. She draws together these disparate sources to elucidate long histories of innovation and international exchange. The three textiles, all from Nigeria, are an elaborately woven woman's wrapper, a pair of embroidered man's trousers, and a wrapper adorned with resist-dyed patterns in indigo dye. The wrappers were collected by the author in the 1970s, and the trousers were collected in 1930. Each textile provides Kriger with a way into broad subjects, including the development of weaving technologies in the region, the interaction between local weavers and regional or transnational influences, the development of indigo resist dyeing techniques, and the impact of colonial policies on African textile production and markets. Each discussion spans chronological and geographical distances, moving from the scant yet tantalizing evidence of centuries-old textiles (beginning with the eleventh-century fabrics found in the Bandiagara region of Mali) to the adaptation of a variety of synthetic fibers and dyes in late twentieth-century Nigeria. …

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