African Textiles: Fabric & Designs

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Palm trees, indigo dye, and bold patterns; What do these things have in common? People use them to make and decorate cloth in Africa. In this lesson, explore fabrics and designs found in African textiles.

A Diverse Continent with Diverse Fabrics

Africa is a large continent with rich history and a diverse population. People from many cultures make this land their home, and they create colorful, fascinating textiles. Archaeologists have found African textiles dating back thousands of years! Throughout Africa, people make textiles using the materials available to them. Depending on where they live, they might use tree bark, palm tree leaves, cotton, linen, or even wool. The ways in which they decorate these fabrics are just as diverse.

Designs and patterns can be added to fabric in several different ways. They may be woven into the textile using colored threads, or fabric can be dyed through many methods to create designs on the surface. People can also embroider decorations by sewing them into the fabric, or create patterns by appliqué, a process in which pieces of cloth are sewn onto a background. You'll notice one thing these fabrics have in common: the designs tend to be stylized. They don't look realistic and often are created by flat bold areas of color or pattern.

Because Africa is so diverse, we won't be able to look at all the types of textiles. But let's explore examples of fabric made and decorated by different processes.

Palm Tree Leaves for Fabric

Some fabrics are made from materials like tree bark and tree leaves. An example of this kind of fabric is Kuba cloth made by the Kuba people of Zaire. It is woven using raffia, strands of fiber from a specific kind of palm tree.

Making the fabric is a long process. First, people pick the palm leaves and strip them with special combs to get the fibers. Sometimes they dye the fibers with natural colors and then soften them by hand rubbing. When the fibers are ready, they are woven into fabric, sometimes also called raffia cloth. It can have patterns like lines, zigzags, and triangles.

Finished pieces of fabric may be further decorated with embroidered and dyed designs or with tufts of fiber in geometric designs. Within Kuba cultures, eighteen sub-groups have their own patterns and symbols that can be woven into the cloth. Designs are often memorized. By some estimates, there are more than 200 different patterns that are found in Kuba cloth.

Example of Kuba cloth
kuba cloth

Kente Cloth and Adinkra: Color, Symbol, and Design

Cultures in Ghana make two distinct types of fabric. First, we'll look at Kente cloth from the Akan people. Kente cloth is woven of silk and cotton threads on looms that create four-inch wide strips of striking, colorful fabric. The strips are sewn together to make a whole fabric.

Many ideas and events have inspired Kente cloth designs and Akan people know their meanings. Abstract and geometric designs include diamonds, checkerboards, stepped pyramids, triangles, and chevrons. The colors in Kente cloth also have meaning. For example, red stands for sacrifice and struggle, while blue represents the sky, peace, and harmony. Purple stands for Mother Earth, femininity, and healing. Black is for spirituality and maturity.

Young girls wearing costumes made of Kente cloth

Another fabric made in Ghana is called Adinkra cloth, and it comes from the Ashanti people. Unlike Kente cloth, Adinkra gets its designs from a process using dye and printing blocks. The fabric is decorated after it is woven. Artists carve blocks to print a series of symbols on the surface, and those symbols have specific meanings. The shapes aren't realistic, but they symbolize warfare, peace, relationships, and many other things. Designs include simple bold forms that resemble curling horns, radiating spider webs, and natural shapes like ferns and shells.

A selection of the symbols stamped onto Adinkra cloth

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