African Textile History

Instructor: Cirrelia Thaxton

Cirrelia is an educator who has taught K-12 and has a doctorate in education.

The history of African textiles spans centuries in time and reflects the ancestral traditions of the African people. Learning about the types of fabrics used in cloth-making and understanding their cultural significance are major goals of this lesson.

Ancient Times

African people have a long history of producing intricate textiles, which we know from evidence ranging from the fabrics themselves to renderings on ancient tombs and pyramids.

From 5,000 B.C.E., Ancient Egyptians were known to cultivate flax for the purpose of weaving linen. Early hieroglyphics, sculptures, and pyramids depicted Egyptians in cloth dress, and by 2,000 B.C.E., renderings of early looms were discovered on Egyptian tombs alongside remnants of linen materials. The first looms were of the ground type and had no heddles. Later, single-heddle looms, which were operated by two people, were found in the tombs. By the 18th Dynasty in Egypt, looms were vertically mounted, had a single heddle, and were secured against a wall or tree during operation by male workers.

Tapestry Fragment from an Egyptian Tunic (c. 6-7th Century)

Other African countries had flourishing textile production as well. For instance, the Nubians in the ancient city of Meroe (who were Egypt's neighbors to the south) were famous for producing strong woven textiles. In Cameroon, there was a long history of making fabric from tree bark. Other African tribes used animal hides, furs, and even feathers in textiles. By the 5th century C.E., sturdy cotton cloth was woven in North Sudan.

Due to its harsh climate, only a few good specimens of ancient woven cloth have been found in Africa. One of these is a red, green, and blue tunic fabric excavated from a site in Niger that dates back to the 8th century C.E. Woven fibers from the 9th century C.E. were found in Nigeria in West Africa, and a woven cotton cloth of the 11th century C.E. was unearthed in Mali.

Modern Era

During modern times, North African societies continued to emphasize the use of natural fibers - such as cotton, wool, palm, jute, flax, and silk - for weaving practices. The characteristics of woven products that attracted Africans included: colorful yarns, textured fabrics, applique designs, embroidery, and dyeing. Great dyers of Africa were located in both Tunisia and Nigeria, where men and women were assigned different jobs because of labor divisions within African society. Two of the most common dyeing techniques employed by Africans were tie-dye and resist, or batik.

Fabrics for batik are made of cotton and are put through a mechanized technique of waxing to create designs. As early as the 17th century C.E., batik was peddled by Asian neighbors. For this reason, it is suspected that batiks came into West Africa through trans-Saharan trade routes from India. The Yoruba people of Nigeria incorporated batik into their culture and it gained immense popularity. Batik designs are forms of expression, communicating everything from marriage and mood to politics and religion. The designs are mainly hand-drawn and passed down from generation to generation. Nowadays batik is quite common in contemporary African clothing production.

Present Traditions

Two popular fabric forms originating in Africa are Bogolan or 'mud cloth' and Kente cloth. Bogolan was a handwoven Mali material, whereas Kente cloth was Ghana's national fabric. Both mud cloth and Kente cloth are made via weaving methods. In fact, the word kente is derived from the process of opening up the warp yarns and beating in the weft yarn during weaving. On the other hand, bogolan means 'to be made of mud.'

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