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!

Les Petits Métiers: la Vannerie / Small Trades: Basketry

La Vannerie
La Vannerie

Quand j’étais en classe de 4ème, mes parents m’ont envoyé passé l’été dans un camp de vacances au coeur de la forêt équatoriale.  La vannerie faisait partie du programme de classes instaurées par le camp, en plus de la sculpture du bois (ce sera un article pour un autre jour), la fanfare, la peinture, etc.  Ce qui me fascinait dans l’art de vanner c’était la vitesse avec laquelle l’instructeur pouvait faire des paniers, des chaises robustes, des chapeaux, etc. C’est comme si le raffia glissait sur ses doigts.  Les outils étaient très simples et rudimentaires: un couteau, et le raffia, le rotin, ou des feuilles de palmiers.  Les premiers jours n’avaient pas été facile, car tout semblait difficile: l’art de manier le raffia ou le palmier sans se blesser, et le couteau de vannerie sans maladresse… et je semblais prendre une éternité pour faire un panier.  La vannerie, c’est tout un art: c’est l’art de tresser les fibres végétales et de fabriquer des objets essentiels qui seront utilisés à la cuisine (paniers), au salon (chaises), dans la garde-robe (chapeaux, sacs), et pour la décoration.  Amusez-vous à regarder un vannier à l’oeuvre au Cameroun.

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African basket
African basket

When I was in middle school, my parents sent me to a camp in the heart of the equatorial forest for the summer.  Basketry was part of the curriculum, as well as wood sculpting (the subject of another post), orchestra, painting, etc. What used to fascinate me was the art, and speed with which the instructor used to weave a basket, make robust chair, and hats. It was as if the raffia was flowing through his hands. The tools used to weave were very simple and rudimentary: a hat, and raffia, rattan, or palm tree leaves. The first days were quite tough since everything seemed super-difficult: the art of weaving raffia or palm tree leaves without hurting myself, and the knife without clumsiness… and it seemed to take me an eternity to make a basket. Basketry is an art: it is the art of weaving fibers to make essential objects that will be used in the kitchen (baskets), the living room (chairs), the wardrobe (hats, bags), and for decoration. Enjoy this video of a basket-maker in action, in Cameroon.

Le raffia ou le bambou africain/ Raffia or the African bamboo

Le palmier de raphia
le palmier de raphia/
Raffia palm tree

Le raphia (raffia) est un des nombreux palmiers qui poussent à travers l’Afrique, plus particulièrement en Afrique centrale, et à Madagascar.  L’arbre de raphia (raphia farinifera ou raphia ruffia) a de très longues feuilles qui peuvent atteindre jusqu’à 18 m de long.  Chaque branche du raphia peut avoir au moins 100 petites feuilles.  La fibre de raphia, telle celle de jute, est douce, flexible et robuste.  Le raphia est utilisé en Afrique pour diverses utilisations, notamment pour faire des meubles de maison (tabouret, table), pour faire les toitures internes des maisons, les lits (communément appelé lit de bambou de raphia), de longues ficelles pour grimper sur les arbres; mais aussi dans l’industrie vestimentaire, pour faire des chapeaux, des paniers, etc.  A Madagascar, la fibre de raphia est aussi utilisée pour concevoir une tenue vestimentaire traditionelle appelée rabanne.  Aujourd’hui, la fibre de raphia est exportée à travers le monde!  Cherchez bien… vous retrouverez le raphia dans votre maison!

Anna Sui Raffia purse
Anna Sui Raffia purse

Dans la video qui suit (du Cameroun), vous assisterez à la fabrication d’un tabouret traditionnel fait à base de bambou de raphia!

The raphia (raffia) is one of the numerous palm tree species found in Africa, particularly in central Africa and Madagascar.  The raffia palm tree (raphia farinifera or raphia ruffia) is made of long leaves that can attain up to 60 ft (18 m) in length. Each raffia palm branch is made of nearly 100 leaflets. The raffia fiber, just like jute, is soft, pliable, and strong.  Raffia is used in Africa for various applications such as to make furniture (table, chairs), internal roofs to houses, beds, to make ropes used to tie up plants, and binding together vegetables to be marketed; but also in the clothing industry to make hats, shoes, baskets, and mats. 
Raffia baskets
Raffia baskets
In Madagascar, people use raffia to make a native cloth known as rabanne.  Today, the raffia fiber is exported throughout the world.  Look carefully,… you might find some raffia lying around the house!

The following video shows the fabrication of a chair using the raffia bamboo, in Cameroon. Enjoy!