African Textiles: Patterns & Techniques

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.

Colorful, bold, striking. These are a few words that come to most people's mind when viewing African textiles. But how do people put designs on the fabric? In this lesson, we'll explore some patterns and techniques used in making African textiles.

A Whole Continent of Textiles

Africa has a rich history of textile production. Fabrics play an important role in the lives and ceremonies of many traditional and indigenous communities. At the same time, Africa is also a large continent with many cultures and more than fifty countries, so the variety of textiles is endless and fascinating.

People in Africa make textiles from substances like cotton, raffia (fibers from a type of palm tree), bast (fibers made from plant stalks soaked in water, softened and woven into linen), and tree bark. Some cultures may also use wool and silk. From these fibers, fabrics may be woven with colored threads or dyed after the weaving is completed.

Before we look at a few production methods in more detail, lets review a little. To create patterns on fabrics, people may dye them, sometimes using a resist, a substance or paste applied to the fabric surface that repels the dye. They may also print designs using a stencil or stamp, paint images on with tools, or embroider them. Some methods also combine weaving and dyeing, or painting and stamping. Each African culture has its own preference, and different parts of the continent tend to focus on different methods -- we can't look at them all. But as an introduction to African textile patterns and techniques, let's look more closely at four of the best-known examples: adinkra cloth, kente cloth, bogolanfini, and adire cloth. We'll start with two textiles made by the Asante people of Ghana.

Adinkra Cloth

The Asante have been perfecting the method of making adinkra cloth for hundreds of years. Adinkra cloth is fabric that is stamp-printed by hand, with stamps made from pieces of the calabash gourd. The stamp can be simple geometric designs or curving shapes with specific meanings. The printer lays the fabric out flat (with something under it to soak up excess dye) and then marks a grid of lines as a guide. They then take the stamp, dip it in ink, and stamp the whole cloth with repeated symbols and designs. It's a time-consuming process. If the fabric background is not going to remain a natural color, it's dyed before the stamping begins. The dye used to stamp the adinkra cloth is made from iron slag and tree bark. When it dries, it becomes a glossy black.

Example of adinkra cloth

Kente Cloth

Kente cloth is made by the Asante and Ewe peoples of Ghana. It's an example of design made by weaving. Kente cloth begins with colorful threads (they can be of any fiber) that are woven on special horizontal foot-powered looms. The result is thin four-inch bands of brilliantly colored fabric that are then sewn together to make a larger textile. Kente cloth has bold geometric designs like horizontal and vertical lines, zigzags and diamonds. Each color and each design has a special symbolism within the culture. So, while these fabrics are bright and highly decorative, they also have a deeper meaning.

Example of kente cloth

Bogolanfini Cloth

Bogolanfini or bogolan cloth is made by the Bamana people of Mali. Bogolan literally means made from mud, and it's a hint to a substance used in its production. In this textile, special dyes are applied on the whole fabric. Then, using a brush or other tool, river mud is applied to it in a pattern. The mud reacts with the dye and oxidizes. When the mud is rinsed off, a pattern begins to emerge. Mud may be applied more than once for a darker background color. Then the areas that weren't painted with mud are bleached with a solution of caustic soda. After more rinsing, and then drying it in the sun, the result is a striking white pattern on a brown or black background.

Example of bogolanfini or bogolan cloth

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