Posted by: humilityjoy | May 17, 2013

History of African Fabrics and Textiles

Wax Hollandais

Wax Hollandais

Very often, Africans are depicted on old pictures as naked people, walking around without any clothing.  This seems to be quite at odd with the fact that the Dutch textile company VLISCO has been installed in Africa, more precisely in Togo, since 1846.  So how could pictures from the 1800s and early 1900s only show naked Africans?  The BBC recently ran a story on VLISCO and African textile tradition actually being European.  The New York Times claimed that Africa’s fabric was entirely Dutch.  I find this quite appalling, and I call this a falsification of history.

For starters, before VLISCO, Africa had a very rich textile industry as noted by Kankan Moussa‘s entire delegation being clothed from cotton woven with golden threads in 1300s during his pilgrimage to the Mecca (this will be a story for another day), or the Kanembu clothing tradition which dates as far back as the 800s.  It is misleading to believe that the Wax hollandais is the only fabric worn by Africans, when we know that the Bogolan rises from a long tradition of weavers in Mali, or the Kente cloth of Ghana.

A piece of Bogolan cloth

A piece of Bogolan cloth

So what is the history of African fabric?  Is there an African history of textile?

As pointed earlier, the African fabric industry is very old, and dates as far back as 5,000BC when ancient Egyptians began cultivating flax and weaving it into linen.  An ancient pottery found at Badari shows an ancient depiction of a loom dating back to this period, while a 12th dynasty image from the tomb of Khnumhotep shows weavers using a horizontal loom (ca 2400 BC).  Moreover, pyramids, sculptures, and hieroglyphs clearly show all Egyptians clothed.
Even their neighbors to the south, the Nubians, had a flourishing textile industry, as can be seen on images on pyramids at Meroë, and images of the great queen Amanishakheto, as well as those of pharaoh Piye.
Later on, as several civilizations flourished throughout Africa, cotton became a more commonly used fabric.  The explorer Ibn Battuta does mention the presence of weavers in the Mali empire, and in Timbuktu, in the 1300s.  As Islam was introduced in West Africa, many began wearing today’s version of the boubou.
Kente cloth

Kente cloth

Today, one can find a full tradition of textile flourishing throughout Africa.  The Bogolan or ‘mud cloth’ is  hand-woven fabric hailing from Mali.  Kente cloth, is Ghana’s national fabric, with the most expensive ones made with golden threads for kings only (in the olden days).  It is said that the British explorers were amazed by the beauty of the Ashanti king’s attire.  Cameroon has a long history of cloth made from the bark of trees, with some fabric particularly made from the obom.  Fibers from the raffia are still commonly used to make bags, and clothing.  Moreover, in West Cameroon, Kings are dressed with finely woven clothing made by the best weavers of the kingdom embellished with beads.  The Pygmies use bark cloth made from tropical fig trees, while people from Chad and the Central African Republic weave cotton strips on horizontal looms; they use a variety of natural dyes.

Ndebele woman

Ndebele woman

The Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, use raffia and make some of the most beautiful hand-woven blankets, clothing, and sculptures.  The Ndebele of South Africa and Zimbabwe have a rich tradition of gorgeous colorful quilts and blankets entirely hand-made.  Many would envy the elegance, color, and presentation of well-dressed Ndebele women.

So why are the New York Times and the BBC trying to falsify history?
Even VLISCO patterns are not Europeans, as they are inspired by Africans, and made to address the needs of the African population.  Yes, Africans wear have worn VLISCO textiles and many Nana Benz have prospered from it, but that doesn’t mean that they do not have their own rich tradition of textile.   Africans have their textile industry which dates back millennia, and has probably inspired many in the world.  So today as you wear a wax hollandais, remember that there are Kente cloth, Bogolan, and many other beautiful garments made by local artists well-deserving of praise.
I am leaving you with a documentary video on Kente cloth weaving.  Enjoy!

Responses

  1. Reblogged this on ChezChelle.

    • Thanks! I am glad you liked the article.

  2. […] from ancient Akan weaving techniques dating as far back as the 11th century AD (this is one of Africa’s textile tradition).  Kente cloth is known as nwentoma (meaning woven cloth) in Akan language, and is a type of […]

  3. Hi! Thanks for this article and your blog. You share some very interesting information. I have a question: you mention the Kanembu clothing tradition that goes back 800 years. I’m very interested in the Kanembu, do you have any info on what clothes they wore traditionally? Like what did the Kanembu royalty and commoners wear in the time of Kanem-Bornu?

    Thanks

    • Thanks Sean for your questions. I am currently reading about the Mai Idriss Alooma of the Kanem-Bornu empire. I will respond more amply in that article.


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