Dressing is an important component of our daily lives. In the African context, clothes are used for cultural identification and as a status symbol.
The African continent is a wonderfully diverse place with an incredible array of people and places. As such, traditional African clothing is as diverse as the continent itself. From the loose-fitting robe called Kaftan worn by men and women in North Africa to the bright and colorful Zulu skirts worn in South Africa there is an incredible variety of clothes.
Traditional African fabric is hand-made using techniques that have often been passed down from generations. The patterns were often used to distinguish one African tribe or group of people from another.
It’s also important to note that the type of cloth used plays an integral role in making the garment. The fabric often reflects the society in general as well as the status of individuals or groups within that community.
Ethnic group Dogon believed that each stage of the fabric making process was a symbolic analogy to human reproduction and resurrection. They also believed that the weaving of clothes should never be done at night, to do so would weave silence and darkness into the cloth.
Here are a few examples of African cloth fabrics:
- Akwete cloth
This is a unique hand woven fabric of Igbo women of Akwete in Abia State, Nigeria. The fabric was originally referred to as “Akwa Miri” (Cloth of the water) which means towel and mostly weaved by the women on a vertical loom. Akwete cloth weaving is said to be as old as the Igbo nation.
Ukara are made exclusively for members of the Ekpe society, an interethnic men’s association found throughout southeastern Nigeria and western Cameroon. The designs are part of a dynamic language known as nsibidi, which uses image and gestural performance to communicate knowledge guarded by society members. Ukara cloths are made for a specific individual, who chooses designs of personal significance.
- Aso oke fabric
This is a hand loomed cloth woven by the Yoruba people of western Nigeria. Aso oke means top cloth in the English language. Usually woven by men, the fabric is used to make men’s gowns, called Agbada, women’s wrappers, called iro, and men’s hats, called fila.
- Adire Kente cloth
Adire are indigo resist dyed cotton cloths that were made by women throughout Yoruba land in south-western Nigeria. Resist-dyeing involves creating a pattern by treating certain parts of the fabric in some way to prevent them absorbing dye. Cloths were made up of two strips of factory produced cotton shirting sewn together to form a shape that was roughly square. They were generally worn by women as wrappers.
This type of fabric is made in Uganda, the inner bark of the Mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis) is harvested during the wet season and then, in a long and strenuous process, beaten with different types of wooden mallets to give it a soft and fine texture and an even terracotta color.
Also known as Bogolanfini is a handmade Malian cotton fabric dyed using a process of fermented mud. Traditionally, the men were responsible for weaving the narrow strips of plain fabric that were then pieced together into a larger rectangular cloth.
In the Bambara language, spoken in Mali, the word bògòlanfini is a composition of three words. Bogo, meaning “earth” or “mud,” lan, meaning “with” and fini, meaning “cloth.” The word is translated as “mud cloth.”
The kanga is a colorful fabric similar to kitenge, but lighter, worn by women and occasionally by men. The earliest pattern of the kanga was patterned with small dots or speckles, which look like the plumage of the guinea hen, also called “kanga” in Swahili.
Kitenge or chitenge is an East African, West African and Central African fabric, often worn by women and wrapped around the chest or waist, over the head as a headscarf, or as a baby sling. Kitenges are colorful pieces of fabric. They are common in the Coastal area of Kenya, and in Tanzania. Kitenges are similar to kangas and kikoy, but are of a thicker cloth and have an edging on only a long side.
This is a printed dyed cotton fabric widely used for traditional South African clothing. Originally dyed indigo, the fabric is manufactured in a variety of colors and printing designs characterized by intricate geometric patterns. The local name shweshwe is derived from the fabric’s association with Lesotho’s King Moshoeshoe I.
Ankara was formerly produced by the Dutch in the early 19th century as batik inspired wax print with the intention of selling the print to Indonesians. However, they were hindered by economic restrictions imposed on the sale of foreign prints by the Indonesia government who were keenly interested in protecting and promoting their locally made batik.
In order to prevent incurring loss, the Dutch changed their target market from Indonesia to Africa, producing batik inspired wax to a more enthusiastic and new market in Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) before spreading to other west Africa, central Africa countries.
There’s a whole lot of history and culture in African textiles so the next time you done African fabric, take time to know where it hails from and whether it had a specific meaning attached to it.
By Cherotich Bernadette