Cloth in African history: the manufacture, patterning and embroidering of Africa's signature textile aesthetics
An overview of textiles from sub-Saharan Africa
Textiles are one of humankind's most essential commodities. Throughout history individuals and social groups have used clothing to enhance their social position and identity, set social boundaries, as currency and a variety of utilitarian purposes.
In Africa, conspicuous displays of expensive cloth was a fine-grained way of displaying wealth, this included both locally made luxurious cloth and imported cloth, such displays were made in both public and private settings; on festivals and burials where redistribution, gift giving, bride price and burial shrouds involved countless meters of finely made cloth, in homes where wall hangings, carpets, blankets and other attire of excellent manufacture were prominently displayed in a custom that was common across many parts of Africa. Delicately woven, dyed and patterned strips of cloth served as currencies in the majority of African societies, spreading designs and techniques of cloth manufacture across regions and making textile production and trade a mainstay of African industry and commerce; weavers, dyers and embroiderers, textile merchants were some of the most ubiquitous professions across the continent and the cloth artworks that they propagated were (and still are) a defining feature of African aesthetics.
The manipulation of plant and animal fibers into apparel constituted a major human revolution; African weavers processed flax palm, reeds, papyrus, tree barks, sheep fleece, camel hair and cotton to make tunics, robes, head warps, skirts, cloaks, trousers, blankets. African Cloth industries are attested possibly as early as the Khartoum Neolithic in Sudan with the discovery of spindle whorls dated to the 5th millennium1 and the cotton plant species 'Gossypium herbaceum’ has since been proven to be native to Africa2
While our knowledge of cloth in Africa is limited by the few studies on its development and the poor preservation of plant fibers in tropical climates (especially in the subequatorial regions), what is known is that woolen textiles from sheep wool and camel wool, and plant fibers such as flax-linen, raffia and barkcloth were fairly widespread across much of the entire continent before the spread of African cotton (and later Indian cotton) starting in the late first millennium BC. There have been a few notable early discoveries of such cotton textiles eg from nubia dated to the 1st century BC3, cotton textiles from Aksum dated to the 4th to 7th century4, cotton textiles from iwelen in Niger dated to the 9th century and from Bandiagara region of Mali in 11th century5, on the east African coast by the 11th century6, and igombe ilede’s cotton textiles in southern Africa dated to the 14th century.7 Depictions of textiles in Africa are fortunately, much older such as the linen and leather cloths of the Kerma kingdom from the 3rd millennium BC8, body-wraps clinched on the waist, from the Nok neolithic from the late first millennium BC9, as well as a number of sculptural and painted depictions of textiles from across the continent.
Textural evidence for cloth in Africa comes much later; concerning cotton cloth, one of the earliest mentions of cotton cultivation in Africa was about the cotton trees grown in kingdom of Kush and is taken from Pliny's natural history10, similar cotton cultivation is mentioned in Aksum on the ezana stela from the 4th century11 , In the 11th century, al-bakri (d. 1094) wrote that the people of the Ghana empire wore cotton silk and brocade, that domestic cloth weavers and supplying large cities with woven products and that in the kingdom of Takrur, cloths of finely woven cotton served as currency12, References to extensive cloth making industries in Africa became more common from the mid second millennium, by which time many of Africa's signature fabrics and designs, weaver’s looms, dye-pits, and trade routes were in place, the list of which is includes dozens of unique cultural textiles such as the Bògòlanfini, Uldebe, Boubou and Riga from western africa, the kemis and gabi from horn of Africa, the Adire, Akwete, Benin, Ijebu and Kente cloths from coastal west africa, the libongo, kuba and loango cloths from west central Africa, the Seketa and Machira cloths of southern and eastern Africa, etc
African textile manufacture and aesthetics was dynamic involving innovations in its designs and patterns, the various forms of apparel and changes in fashion were dictated by local factors such as; discoveries of different forms of looms, patterning styles, dyes and forms of embroidery, and external influences such as; imports of yarn and silk whose threads were incorporated into locally made cloths. Africa’s textile industry declined by the mid-20th century not as much because of competition from cheap factory imports but because of the shifts in labor supply ; Africa's major textile producing regions also tended to be significant importers of cloth, but drastic changes in labor supply during the colonial and post-independence era (as workers moved to other sectors) constrained the ability of this traditionally labor intensive handicraft industry to attract new workers or maintain the required amount of labor. Fortunately, the increasing demand for both hand-woven and factory made African textiles has led to a resurgence in production of Africa’s cultural textiles
This article explores the history of cloth making and textile designs across the continent in four regions of Sudan and the horn of Africa; west Africa; west-central Africa and eastern and southern Africa mostly focusing on the types of apparel, the methods of manufacture and the different designs.
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Cloth history in Sudan and the horn of Africa
Home to some of Africa's oldest states, this region is also the place with some of the earliest attested African textiles. Restricting our observation to the post-neolithic era; the A-Group, C-group and Kerma kingdom Nubians living in the 4th/3rd millennium BC wore dyed linen loincloths and skirts (similar to Egyptian loincloths) and a leather caps (that would later became a staple Nubian wardrobe)13, during the Kushite era (800BC-300AD) this attire was then complemented with a shoulder-fastened wrap-over (similar to a coat) and a sash tied around the right shoulder (similar to a shawl) both of which were elaborated embroidered14.Aksumites wore linen loincloths, as well as cloak and embroidered tunic shirts15, while medieval Ethiopians wore shirts, tunics, cloaks all of which could be loose or tight fitting and buttoned, white or vibrantly colored, plain or embroidered as well as full-length cotton skirts for women, other attire included headwraps or turbans, stockings and a netela scarf for women16, in Somalia common apparel included wrapped clothing such as tunics, cloaks and turbans or leather caps for men and a full length dress for women, most of these clothes were bleached, some were dyed and embroidered17
In ancient Nubia, cloth was weaved using warp-weighed looms and it was done from the top downwards producing thick cotton cloth and woolen cloth as well18, medieval weavers in Sudan would later use in pit treadle looms. In Ethiopia and Somalia, weaving was done over pit-treadle looms19; a weaver sat on the edge of the pit above which the loom is mounted and in which he operates the treadles with his feet, in the Benadir region of Somalia, spinning wheels were also employed to speed up the production of yarn, as many as 1,000 weaving households in Mogadishu were employed in the 1840s and as much as 360,000 pieces of cloth that were sent into the interior annually in the mid 19th century.20
Dyeing in Nubia was done using indigo, weld and madder to achieve blue and red shades, and embroidery threads often used dyed yarn. 21Ethiopian and Somali weavers attimes unwrapped imported silk threads and incorporated them into local clothing to create colorful embroidery22 typically applied on the corners of the cloth using several kinds of foliate and floral motifs in various colors the most striking of which were gold, yellow, and red.
11 century painting of Bishop marianos of Faras from the kingdom of Makuria wearing typical ecclesiastical garb of Nubia, embroidered silk cotton dress of Queen Woyzaro Terunesh of ethiopia made in 1860s (now at V&A museum)
silk and cotton tunic from 19th century mahdist Sudan (at the smithsonian museum), Somali women in traditional garb (photo from early 20th century)
Cloth history in eastern and southern Africa
In south-eastern Africa, locally woven cotton cloths were made into blankets, cloaks, hammocks, robes and body-wraps clichéd on the waist23, along the east African coast, cloth was widely manufactured in many of the coastal city states such as Kilwa, Pate, Sofala and the Kirimba islands into various forms of attire such as wide sleeved robes, full length dresses, ankle length silk cloaks that were wrapped over their shoulders and a head wrap of a turban24, in the east African interior both cotton and other plant fibers and barks were woven into fine clothing; most notably cotton in much of central Tanzania at Ufipa and Nyamwezi, and Malawi in the lower shire region25, and in the African great lakes region, finely made barkcloth was fashioned into robes, cloaks and beddings the biggest makers of these textiles were the in Buganda and Karagwe kingdoms26
Weaving was done using the the fixed-heddle horizontal ground loom in most parts of eastern and southern Africa often for weaving wider cloths, and the pit loom was later used in northern Kenya27, production of cloth in this region was substantial, most of the cloths made in the Swahili cities were sold into the interior, in Mutapa, strips of locally made cloths also served as currency while in the great lakes region, Buganda and Karagwe barkcloth was sold across the region, by the late 19th century, the Zanzibar cloth makers had come to dominate the east African market selling over 614,000 meters of cloth a year into the interior during the mid 19th century most of which was reworked cloth that it had imported.28
Cloths in eastern and southern africa were dyed using indigo especially near Kirimba islands which where the main source of indigo dyed cloths on the swahili coast and the Kirimba’s local Milwani cloth was often dyed blue,29 Zanzibari weavers are known to have added fashionable borders of embroidery using silks and dyed cotton threads by the early 19th century into the Zanzibari cloth and imported merikani cloth, these patterns would later be mimicked by Dutch and British producers in the early 20th century in the manufacture of the now-ubiquitous kanga30.
Swahili men from Lamu, Kenya (photo from 1884), Swahili woman from Zanzibar, Tanzania (photo taken before 1900)
Barkcloth from Uganda (inventoried in 1930 at the British museum), Fipa weavers in Tanzania (photo taken in 1908)
Cloth history in west Africa
In the central and western Sudan (a belt of land stretching from northern Nigeria to Senegal) cotton cloths were made into trousers, gowns, dresses, cloaks, turbans, blankets, shirts, and caps this was done in a variety of places but the major production centers were in the inland Niger delta (central Mali) and the Hausalands (northern Nigeria)31, the same articles of clothing such as shirts, trousers, headwraps, blankets were made in coastal west Africa but with a stronger emphasis on robes and body-wraps either clinched to the waist or on the shoulder.32
West African weavers employed a wide variety of looms the most common were narrow band treadle looms which speed up pattern weaving through the use a harnesses suspended from a pulley and foot pedals to manipulate warp threads, both vertical and horizontal looms were also used to produce larger cloths as well33, Manufacture of textiles in west African cities and regions was substantial, as Heinrih Barth estimated that the city of Kano alone exported over £40,000 worth of cloth annually in the 1850s (about £5,000,000 today) and Kano was one of many cloth producing cities in northern Nigeria, while Benin kingdom exported more than 120,000 meters of cloth to Dutch and English traders in 1644-1646 which was a fraction of its internal trade34, explorers in the 19th century observed that thousands of tailors, dyers and embroiderers were employed in the manufacture of cloth during In the Hausalands, in south-eastern Nigeria, in the Senegambia and in central Mali.
Dyeing was primarily done using natively domesticated indigo which was the favorite medium for resist dyeing in south-eastern Nigeria and the Hausalands, while a wide range of plant and mineral colors such as hibiscus and camwood were used for obtaining red patterns35 , the Bambara weavers of Mali dyed using fermented mud and plant extracts to achieve a deep brown color with yellow and black accents36 Patterning in west African cloth was achieved by stitching strips of cloth, stamping, drawing and painting designs on its surface using dyes or paints made from organic materials, while embroidering was worked in stiches using colored yarn and imported silk or wool than was unwrapped; a variety of geometric, floral designs were attained using interlacing chain stiches as well as straight stiches depending on the skill of the embroiderer37, in Dahomey and among the yoruba, such embroiderers added lively scenes such as animal hunts, battle scenes and other depictions
cross section of west african tunics from; the Mande of mali (19th century, at quaibranly), the Tellem of Mali (17th century at Ulm museum), the Hausa of Nigeria (19th century at british museum), the Fon of Dahomey, Benin (19th century at quai branly)
cross-section of west African traditional garb; a fokwe chief from Cameroon in a riga, edo women from Benin kingdom, Nigeria, Senufo men from Senegal (photos from the early 20th century)
Cloth history in west central Africa
In west central Africa, weavers used the fiber of raffia to make wall hangings, blankets, carpets, ankle-length skirts, full length body-wraps, burial shrouds and tents, the “great textile belt” in west central Africa included kingdoms such as Kongo, Loango, Kuba, Luba, and the ‘seven kingdoms’. Production was done using both vertical and ground looms for making narrow strips and wide cloths although some cloths were also made without the use of the loom and the size of the cloth was determined by the lengths of the fibers, "units" of larger pieces of cloth were often made by stitching together smaller square pieces of cloth using rafia threads.
West-central African weavers used very tight weaves to make the cloths attain a soft texture and the process of making them required a high level of skill, thus making the quality of such textiles high, this can be collaborated based on observations of travelers, traders and missionaries in the region during the 16th to 18th centuries who compared it to velvet or “velvetized satin” and favorably drew parallels to their own best manufactures38, they collected many of these cloths and set them back to Europe inadvertently preserving some of the oldest textiles from this region (as none are found in archeological contexts).
Production capacity of west central African cloth manufacturers was high, the eastern Kongo region of Momboares produced about 400,000 meters of cloth a year in the 17th century (this was a region with just 3.5 people per sqkm and a population of 250,000) the Momboares was one of several centers in the great textile belt of west-central Africa that stretched from the northwestern coast of Angola to the Tanzania/DRC border and including such famed cloth producers as the Kuba and Luba, The production capacity of this region compares favorably with contemporaneous cloth producers such as leiden in eastern Holland that were making 100,000 meters of cloth a year.39
Cloth in west central Africa was dyed using a number of organic mediums and mineral sources such as redwood, chalk, charcoal and select types of clay to archive various colors such as red, yellow, blue and enhance their characteristic deep-gold of the raffia, dyeing was added to the thread before it was woven and could as well be added after the cloth was made, this latter process was also featured in embroidering which involved dyeing, detailed needlework and clipping of individual tufts applying geometric and interlacing patterns and motifs.40
Kongo cushion cover (inventoried 1737 at Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen), Kuba embroidered prestige panels from the 19th-20th century (at detroit institute of arts, met museum)
Portrait of a Kongo ambassador (from Angola) in Recife, Brazil (from 1637–1644), Kuba embroiders in DRC (mid 20th century photo), Gara chief of pande in congo brazaville (from the early 20th century)
Conclusion: On the gradual decline of Africa’s cloth production and its recent upsurge
Cloth is arguably africa’s most resilient aesthetic tradition, African textiles were a pivotal form of individual and cultural identity and their designs, motifs and artworks are a vivid illustration of historical chapters of the African past. African patrons consistently favored a cosmopolitan spectrum of textiles with aesthetics derived from a wide range of sources; this was attested for example, in west central Africa where royals and elites accumulated great hoards of cloth from all over the world as part of a regional tradition of using large burial shrouds, Queen Njinga for example, had a cloth hoard in 1663 that included Dutch, Asian, Kongo, Loango and Yoruba cloths. Cloth was also hoarded in the gold coast region as a marker of wealth and frequent changes of expensive cloth bought from as far as the Huasalands and central Mali as a way of conspicuous consumption. These extravagant purchases, displays and uses of textiles were also observed in northern Nigeria, in Ethiopia, in Zanzibar, in south eastern Africa and it was this appreciation for diverse fashions that defined African cloth manufacturing and consumption.
Discourses of Africa’s cloth history especially those that focus of africa’s propensity to import textiles are based on facile models of economic behavior in which it’s assumed that cloth was imported because it wasn’t made locally or the imports were of high quality, yet the evidence shows Africa’s biggest cloth producers were also the biggest importers, rather than displace the domestic textile industry, imports complemented it not only by stimulating demand for cloth products and increasing the supply of yarn but encouraging related crafts of dyeing and embroidering, and far from being high quality, early factory made cloth was mass produced and of very poor quality; estimates of textile production and consumption also record a marked uptick in both across Africa in the mid 19th century that continued into the early 20th century41.
The twilight of Africa’s cloth manufacture was instead heralded by the shifts in its labor institutions beginning in the early 20th century particularly the interactions between African workers, producers and consumers as African producers chose to allocate labor where the most profit could be accrued based on local conditions and global trading opportunities. The recent upsurge in production of African cultural textiles is also dictated by the same dynamic; increasing domestic and foreign demand that can afford to pay the wages required for specialist tailors of African designs whose products are relatively pricey because of the cultural value attached to them and the methods of production.
The recent renaissance of African textile production is characterized by highly personalized artworks which draw upon reservoirs of classical traditions, the visual language of African textile tradition preserve a rich legacy of Africa’s cultural history
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Early Khartoum by John Arkell
Archaeogenomic Evidence of Punctuated Genome Evolution in Gossypium by Sarah palmer
Cotton in ancient Sudan and Nubia by E. Yvanez and M. M. Wozniak, pg4
Foundations of an African civilisation by D. W Phillipson, pg 179
The early history of weaving in west africa by Sonja Magnavita, pgs 191-193
The Swahili world by Stephanie Wynne-Jones, p327
Cotton weaving in South-east Africa by P Davison, pg 175
daily life of nubians by R. S. Bianchi, pg 97
Cloth in west african history by Colleen E. Kriger, pg 71
Studien Zum Antiken Sudan by Steffen Wenig, pg 299
D. W Phillipson, pg 200
Colleen E. Kriger, pg 74
R. S. Bianchi, pg 44, 97
The kingdom of kush by L. Torok, pg 438
D. W Phillipson pg 200, A Late Antique Christian king from Ẓafār pg 6
history of ethiopia 1622 by pedro paez, pg 204-205
The politics of dress in Somali Culture by H. M. Akou pg 36,37
Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures by Helaine Selin pg 241
textiles of africa by D. Idiens pg 23
Africa's development in historical perspective by N. Nunn, pg 271, 267
Indigo in the Arab World By Jenny Balfour-Paul pg 119
Economic History of Ethiopia by R. Pankhurst, pg 260
D. Idiens, pg 187
As Artistry Permits and Custom May Ordain by J. G. Prestholdt pgs 30-35
Twilight of an Industry in East Africa by K. Frederick, pg 37, 167
Political power precolonial buganda by R. J. Reid pg 72-75)
N. Nunn, pg 272
K. Frederick pg 141
J. G. Prestholdt, pg 21,22
K. Frederick, pg 73
Colleen E. Kriger, pg 96-99
Colleen E. Kriger, pg 37
Colleen E. Kriger, pg 70-77)
Benin and the Europeans by A. F. C. Ryder, pg 93
D. Idiens, pg 15)
Sahel art and empires by Alisa LaGamma, pg 241
The Essential Art of African Textiles by Alisa LaGamma pg 33-34
A history of west-central africa by J.K.Thornton pg 12
Precolonial African industry and the Atlantic trade by J. Thornton pg 11-14
Power, Cloth and Currency on the Loango Coast by PM Martin pg2
K. Frederick, pg 10-20