The Materials & Processes related to the Cultural Textiles of Africa

Textiles of Africa

THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA

A Kuba chief in formal attire. Note the cut pile border. Image from The Worldwide History of Dress.

Textiles of Africa occupy a unique spot in the history of world textiles: Their use ranges from clothing, tent awnings, wall hangings, and bed covers: they also indicate the wealth of the owner, and in many cases, his social standing and possessions.  Historically, textiles in Africa have also been used as currency. Therefore it is a pity that most western perception of this genre centers on its ‘craft.’ Of course, African textiles are craft-based, but they are so much more than that.  

Africa is a massive continent, with immense cultural and geographical diversity, so the only way to examine its textile traditions in such an article is to divide the elements under heads:

TEXTILES OF AFRICA MADE ON HEDDLE LOOM

 

THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA

A heddle loom in operation.

The single heddle loom is widely used all over Africa, where the heddle separates warp threads to allow the weft. Heddles are usually operated with pedals. 

Interestingly, the cloth on the heddle loom is woven in narrow strips, sewn together as required.  The beauty of the Asante people’s kente is based on the tasteful juxtaposition of individual cloth strips. 

THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA
An Asante silk kente. Woven in strips.
THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA
A gown from the Hausa, in narrow strips.

MATERIALS FOR THE TEXTILES OF AFRICA

Raw materials in Africa cover cotton, silk, wool, goats hair, and some non spun natural fibers like raffia and bast, which derives from the plant stem.

Since the yarn produced from hand spinning is thick and difficult to use, there is an interesting tradition of unraveling cloth from Europe to work with.  Local silk yarn lacks shine, though textiles like the Sanyan are highly prized. Nowadays, lurex and rayon have replaced silk yarn to a great degree.  

THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA
Sanyan textile
THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA
A cloth of the Yoruba, with lurex

DYEING FOR THE TEXTILES OF AFRICA

Though much African cloth is woven from natural undyed fibers, dyeing is widespread all over Africa. Natural dyes are made from various sources: red from camwood, yellow from brimstone bark, and indigo from Tinto. 

Resist dyeing is practiced widely in Africa by sewing sticks and stones to cloth before dyeing or applying starch paste through stencils. Mostly dyeing is done by either men or women. In Nigeria, only men undertake dyeing, and among the Yoruba, only women.

THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA
Yoruba resist dyeing using a stencil.
THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA
A Yoruba cloth using resist dyeing with raffia thread.

The mud cloths of the Bamna use a unique dyeing technique not seen elsewhere.  Black mud dye is used on yellow dyed fabric, and the yellow is then discharged,  giving a white on a brownish background.  

THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA
A mud cloth of the Bamana

SURFACE EMBELLISHMENTS ON THE TEXTILES OF AFRICA

Patchwork, appliqué, and embroidery are widely practiced throughout Africa. The embroidery of the Hausa of Nigeria and Cameroon is incredibly delicate.

THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA
A gown from the Cameroons, embroidered with wool.
THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA
Raffia dance skirt of the Kuba, with appliqué.

The Kuba practice a cut-pile technique in which woven raffia is manipulated to create a soft pile, often combined with embroidery.  

THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA
A Kuba woman on left in a cut pile gown. Image from The Worldwide History of Dress

PATTERN & COLORS FOR THE TEXTILES OF AFRICA

Stripes and checks are produced routinely on heddle looms, and more complex motifs are woven using extra heddles. Many motifs carry ritualistic meanings, such as combs and mirrors as talismans against evil, or knives as cutting envious glances.  

THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA
A silk textile from Algeria, with a comb design which is protective against evil
THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA
A Berber woollen textile with interlinked squares, protective against evil
THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA

Barkcloth in red from Uganda.

Unlike western repeating patterns, African textiles often have unexpected elements like deliberate errors, possibly because of the Islamic stricture against perfection.  

Colors, too are deeply symbolic in African cultures, such as red being associated with mystical powers.  

WAX PRINTING ON THE TEXTILES OF AFRICA

I can’t speak of African textiles and leave out wax prints, which are used widely for clothing in Africa.  Wax prints are based on a batik technique and serve as a way of communication between African women. For instance, a wax print carrying fan motifs would indicate that she is well off enough to afford a fan in her house.  

The Dutch company called Vlisco, produces fantastic wax prints that are used not just in Africa but are a fashion statement throughout the world. 

THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA
wax prints from Vlisco
THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA
wax prints from Vlisco
THE MATERIALS & PROCESSES RELATED TO THE CULTURAL TEXTILES OF AFRICA
wax prints from Vlisco

While many scholars rue using machine-woven yarn and roller technology in recent years, it may have allowed Africa’s handloom weavers to produce more significant quantities and broader patterns.  A tradition is also a living tradition, which means that it will change, progress, and develop.  African hand made cloth has only benefited from this. 

AUTHOR BIO

Mira Gupta

Mira Gupta is a well-known curator and designer in craft-based luxury.  She has had working stints with Fabindia, Good Earth, and Ogaan to promote the cause of craft.  She is deeply interested in art, travel, architecture, and culture.

Read more articles by the author HERE

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