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Clothing in Africa


Contributed By: Muhonjia Khaminwa,

The precise origins of cloth production in Africa is lost in time, but archaeological findings indicate some of the earliest sites. Drawings of looms can be seen in the tombs of ancient Egypt, dating back to at least 2000 B.C.E. Archaeologists have found linen remnants in ancient Egypt, as well as fifth-century cotton cloth remnants in Meroe, in northern Sudan. In West Africa, woven fiber pieces dating back to the ninth century C.E. have been found in Nigeria, and woven cotton cloth dating to the eleventh century has been recovered in Mali. Evidence of loom use in Mauritania dates back to the eleventh century.

Traditions of Cloth Production and Design Bark cloth, or cloth made from tree bark, predates the development of woven textiles in most parts of Africa. Today it is rarely used for day-to-day clothing, but some societies use it for ceremonial costumes. The Ganda of Uganda, for example, make fabric from the inner bark of fig trees, which is worn during ceremonial dances and other occasions when ancestors are being honored. Early clothing in Africa was also made from treated animal hides, furs, and feathers.

Many African societies weave cloth from locally grown cotton. In North Africa and the Sahel, women also spin and weave camel and sheep wool. Other sources of fiber include the raffia palm in Central and West Africa, jute and flax in West Africa and Madagascar, and silk in Nigeria, Madagascar, and East Africa. All these fibers can be dyed using vegetable and mineral dyes.

The two main kind of textile looms in Africa are the double-heddle loom, used for narrow strips of cloth, and the single-heddle loom, used for wider pieces. The narrow strips are typically sewn together, then cut into patterns for clothing. The double-heddle loom is generally used only by male weavers, who use it to weave in colored threads and create richly textured fabrics. In addition, weavers in North Africa and in Ethiopia also use ground looms, while looms similar to those used in Southeast Asia are found in Madagascar. Although Africa's weavers produce a wide variety of patterned, colored fabric, they also weave plain cloth. This cloth can either be used "as is" for daily wear around the home, or it can be decorated. Common fabric-decorating techniques include appliqué designs, sewn on in contrasting fabrics; embroidery with brightly colored threads; and dyeing.

Two of the most popular dyeing techniques in Africa are tie and dye, and resist dye. In tie and dye, designs are first tied or stitched into the cloth, using cotton or raffia threads. In resist dye, dyers draw on the cloth using an impermeable substance, such as candle wax or paste made from cassava, a tuber. They then dip the fabrics into solutions typically made from vegetable dyes, which color all but the covered areas. Indigo plants are used for deep blue dyes, while reddish brown dyes are extracted from cola nuts, the camwood tree, and the redwood tree. Greens, yellows, and blacks are prepared from other sources.

Most designs and motifs used to decorate fabric have names. Many designs are associated with particular plants, animals, events, or proverbs, and are often used in other crafts, such as house painting, carving, and pottery. Others incorporate Arabic script, Roman letters and numerals, or line drawings of contemporary objects, such as bicycles and cars. "Traditional" cloth production, in other words, is not only highly varied from place to place but is also influenced by societal and technological change.

In many African societies, men and women are responsible for different stages of cloth production. The gender division of labor, however, varies widely by region, and in many places has changed over time. For example, in Mali, women used to dye bogolanfini mud-cloth, but today young unemployed men in urban areas have taken up this craft. They typically produce lower-quality cloth, which is sold to tourists or exported. Indigo dyeing is women's work among the Yoruba and the Soninke of West Africa, but among the Hausa, fabric dying is traditionally a men's craft.

Commercial textile and clothing production has a long history in some parts of Africa. In Tunisia, weavers and dyers as early as the tenth century C.E. organized guilds in order to protect their business. By the fifteenth century, the dyeing pits of Kano in northern Nigeria were renowned as far north as the Mediterranean coast. They are still in operation today. In Kano as in many other precolonial centers of commercial textile production, the city's political elite were among the weavers' and dyers' most important clientele. Royal patronage fostered the development of special luxury cloths. The court of King Njoya of Baumun in present-day Cameroon, for example, produced especially fine examples of raffia-stitched tie and dye. The Asante court in Kumasi (in present-day) Ghana) supervised the production of silk kente cloth (described below).

Clothing Traditions Across the Continent

Elsewhere in West Africa, men in many societies weave cotton cloth in long narrow strips, which are then stitched into large pieces. Among the Asante, the men wrap the long piece of cloth around the waist and then loop it over the shoulder, toga-style. Baggy pants that are tight around the lower leg are popular, as are elaborately embroidered, full-length robes. Women across West Africa commonly tie a long wrap around the waist, accompanied by a wide sash, a matching blouse, and a head wrap.

The Yoruba of Nigeria prepare an indigo-dyed cotton called adire eleso. The artists sew finely detailed patterns onto the cloth using raffia or cotton thread, then take the cloth to a dyer, known as an aloro, who, it is said, works under the protection of the Yoruba spirit Iya Mapo. Similar techniques are also used farther west, among the Wolof, the Soninke, and the Mandinka, and as far south as the Kasai region in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Yoruba women cloth makers, known as aladire, use resist dye methods to make adire eleso. They use cassava paste to paint or stencil repeated abstractions of animals and plants onto the cloth. After dyeing the cloth indigo blue, they beat it with a wooden stick until it attains a bright glossy sheen. Bambara women in Mali also use the resist technique to produce a speckled blue fabric, while Soninke women coat cloth in paste and then run a comb through it, to create a wavelike design after dyeing.


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