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!

The Boubou: A Traditional African Garment

President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, famous for his boubous
President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, famous for his grand boubous

Yesterday I wore my green boubou with intricate gold embroidery in the front for a special African celebration.  To say that I looked like royalty is simply an understatement.  I looked majestic!  So, for starters, you might ask me what is a boubou?  Well, a boubou (or bubu, or grand boubou, or grand bubu) is an African garment worn by men and women in much of West Africa, and parts of Central Africa.  The boubou generally consists of up to three pieces: a long-sleeved shirt, a pair of tie-up trousers that narrow at the ankles, and an open-stitched overflowing wide sleeveless gown worn over these two; all three are usually the same color, and were historically made from silk, but nowadays are made up of cotton or sometimes synthetic fabric made to resemble silk.  The whole will be incomplete without a hat or chechia of any color.  A woman’s boubou would differ from a man’s boubou by the fact that it will consists of two pieces: a wrapper at the bottom, and a large overflowing gown to top it all off, and of course an intricate headscarf.  Its name comes from the wolof ‘mbubb’, which made it into French, as boubou.  In Yoruba, it is known as agbada; in Hausa, it is babban riga, while in Tuareg, it is k’sa grand boubou.

Woman wearing a boubou
Woman wearing a boubou

The tradition of the boubou is old, and can be traced back to as far as the 8th century.  Its origin lies with the clothing worn by the Islamized Tukulor (Toucouleur), Mandé, and Songhai peoples of the great Takrur and Ghana empires, and 13th century Mali and Songhai empires.  In West Africa, the nobles of the different people were already wearing a garment more or less similar to the actual boubou.  The different patterns in the embroidery already had precise meanings which varied for different ethnic groups and regions.  The rest of the population, in majority craftsmen and farmers, wore garments similar to tunics for the upper body, and a wrapper or baggy trousers for the lower body.

In the past, in West Africa and Central Africa, only Islamized peoples used to wear the boubou: Fulani, Toucouleur, etc. … the other ethnic groups all had their own traditional garments of more or less similar genre.  With trade among the peoples, the fashion industry, many African stylists (such as Alphadi) have specialized into the boubou and it has now gained international exposure.

The video below is short and simple, and addresses the boubou.  It is a small documentary from Arte. Enjoy!