For millennia, textiles have been used in Africa for more than warmth or protection. African textiles have been used as means for communication, conveying history and information through symbols, colors, threads, proverbs. They have been used to commemorate weddings, funerals and important political events. They have also been used to show faith, status, and, of course, for creative expression. Methods of production and decoration include weaving, dyeing, appliquéing, embroidering and printing, while fabrics are of cotton, wool, raffia, bast (flax, jute), tree bark and silk.
Kente is Ghana’s national fabric and is made through a long process of strip weaving and stitching silk and cotton yarn, leading to a multi-colored geometry of zigzags and diamonds. The colors and designs are deeply symbolic. Golden threads were used for the Ashanti royalty (long ago), while blue represents love. The Ashanti and Ewe often wear black (spiritual energy) and white (purity) kente cloth to funerals to celebrate life and mourn death.
Kitenge is an East African cotton fabric often used as material for women’s dresses. Kitenge wax prints are bright in color and lively in design and are increasingly popular in urban youth culture, with incorporation into hoodies, bags, etc. The East African khanga fabric is similar to kitenge, but lighter and used for more purposes (head-wrap, towel, etc.). Khangas are often themed, with printed sayings such as, “Japo sipati tamaa sikati” (Although I’m not getting [what I want], I am not giving up); and “Tulimpenda lakini Mungu kampenda zaidi” (We loved her/him, but God loved her/him more).
Bogolan is a textile from Mali that is produced with dyes and fermented mud resulting in earth-toned patterns. Kuba textiles from DRC are made from woven raffia palm leaf fiber and are beautifully geometric. Boubou/Agbada is a flowing wide-sleeved robe, often of silk or silk-like fabric, worn particularly by West African men. Shweshwe is a printed dyed cotton fabric used to make clothing primarily for women in Southern Africa.
By Rahim Mawji