Posted by: Dr. Y. | 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!


  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 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.

  4. African fabrics is very popular in our wold for his quality, color, design,stile and also looks very gorgeous .n thanks for open this blog .we can know about african fabricsn its history.

    • Thanks for commenting and for visiting my blog Arif. I totally agree… African fabrics is very beautiful, and offers great design, patterns, style, and chic.

  5. […] Dr. Y History of African fabrics and textile 2013 […]

    • Thank you for reblogging this article.

  6. Reblogged this on steefmp.

  7. Now a days African fabrics is very popular all over the world .Every ages of people likes it very much for its color,design, amazing style, gorgeous look.thank you so much for your post.
    African Fabrics
    African Wax Print
    African George Fabric
    African Velvet George
    Guipure Lace Fabrics
    Nigerian Lace Fabric
    French Lace Fabric
    African Head Tie

    • Thanks for commenting Arif3g

  8. I am amazed of the correct knowledge which left a questioning deep dent on my mind-thinking. The lies and deceit which Western countries have portrayed Africa is still deep seeded in history books. Time to have this reviewed and re-written. I believe in philosophy rather and what is taught in the Westernized schools. Many thanks for making me conscious of this african craft.

    • Dear Jean, I am so glad I could help. Yes… too many African contributions have been clouded or erased, and we (Africans) have been made to think that we never contributed even to our clothing!

  9. […] This fantastic short article made me realize that the image of the “naked African” is one too common, still today. But Africa’s textile industry was flourishing well before the Dutch arrived, but as it unfortunately happens with much of the continent’s history, its tale has been chopped and simplified. […]

    • Thanks VsQ, I totally agree with you. Now you realize that so much of our history has been erased, re-written, etc… and it is our duty to reveal to all as it was truly.

  10. thanks and God bless you for the great awakening of this indept knowledge

    • Thanks Kofi for the comment.

  11. […] original post […]

  12. Okay, this makes sense. Just like the African American …The history has been covered. Is there any way I can buy or purchase from the original master weavers in Africa? I would rather support them.

    • Yes… you can definitely buy from master weavers. It just depends on what kind of textile you are looking for. If you are looking for Kente (Ghanaian cloth), it is still woven in Ghana, or bogolan (Mali), etc…

      • How do I make contact from the United States? Or I can only do in person? I’m interested in different fabrics. However I do not know any one in Mali or Ghana.



  13. […] Resources African Heritage […]

  14. Thank you for this fascinating information. I am a university student in California (USA) and will be incorporating some of your facts (with appropriate citation of course!) in a report I am writing about Ghana’s textile and clothing industry, and the effect second-hand clothing imports are having on it.

    • Thanks Shari; This is quite an honor. Do let me know if there are other ways I could help. All the best in writing your report!

  15. Thank you so much for informing us. I recently visited Uganda and came to know the markets were selling african inspired fabrics from China. I wasnt aware they were knock offs and now i am starting a store that sell authentic african fabrics made by the women in Uganda villages. It broke my heart to see them being robbed of their craft and source of income for their families.

    • Thumbs up Shundra! I totally agree with you, and I thank you for this great endeavor which restores Ugandan/African craft and craftmakers to their rightful place.

  16. I am glad to find this article, because I was just now looking for information about patterns in African fabric designs: their history, symbolism, etc. There was an awesome exhibit on fabrics of Congo in New York, but they did not talk about the meaning imbued in the designs. Do you know any good books or online resources? Thanks again for this article!

    • Thank you for commenting southsudanhoney. I will check it out and let you know more. I do know that fabrics form Congo is very rich, like those of the Kuba people. Did you take any picture? Zimbabwean artist Safi Mafundikwa studied African symbols and writing; I am not sure if he does textiles.

  17. Thank you so much for your article! I am Dutch and travelled around several African countries and I am very interested in the history of the different textile prints and the meaning of them. The prints are so different in neighbor countries or regions. Do you know if there are workshops, lectures or courses about this? I cannot find any (in the Netherlands).
    Thank you!

    • Thanks for commenting Marjolein. I do not know if there are workshops… a while back, there were workshops and lectures in Mali. I will check again, and let you know if I find anything these days. It is a magnificent idea, and I think it should be done!

  18. […] to other types of folk art, however, it is thought that their origins can be traced back to four civilizations of Central and West Africa.  In Africa, most textiles were made by men.  It wasn’t until African slaves were brought to […]

    • Thanks for linking to my blog

  19. Very thoughtful and well presented….. I run a similar blog called “Revised African History”. Do u mind if I share this article on my blog? Would love you to also read through my blog and pass ur comment, observation and commendations.

    • Absolutely. Feel free to share on your blog. I will visit yours as well.

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