African printed and dyed textiles

Africa is a great and varied continent of wide horizons and clear blue skies, which has long held a fascination for those born outside its bounds. Over the centuries its wealth of minerals, animal products and manpower has drawn in colonists and traders, slavers and missionaries alike. Its huge population is of diverse origin: people of Arab and Berber descent in the north, Khoisan-speakers and European colonists in the extreme south, Nilotic-speaking peoples in the north-east, and south of the Sahara a rich mix of groups who speak one of the Bantu languages.

Although the African textile tradition attracted  little foreign academic interest until the 20th century, African textiles found their way into European collections long before then. At the Ulm Museum in Germany, for example, there have been garments made of strip-woven cloth, the characteristic weave of West Africa, since the 1650s, and woven raphia cloth of the Kongo people (decorated with patterns similar to those of the modern-day cut-pile embroidery of the Congo’s Kuba tribe) has been held at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford since the 17th century.

Nigerian indigo dyed cloth

To go to any market in West Africa is to experience an assault on the visual senses. The market women will be swathed in brightly patterned wraps – usually wax-printed factory-made batiks of Dutch or local origin. At funerals, however, both men and women wear mantles freshly dyed in sombre colours, which in Ghana are decorated with adinkra patterns, block-printed on with calabash stamps at the village of Ntonso.

African cloth

Although some cloth is still woven at home for personal use, there is a vast textile trade. The European wax prints, based on Javanese batik, are an important trade item throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Damasks from China and Europe are another major import, as it is on these and locally made damasks that much of the tied-resist indigo dyeing is done. And until very recently English ‘Manchester prints’ were hugely popular and heavily traded.

Kuba Raphia Textile

Traditional West African cloths are often made up of very long, narrow strips of fabric, cut into appropriate lengths and sewn together selvedge to selvedge. Rolls of this cloth once served as currency in place of money. Veils made from the narrowest strips are heavily indigo-dyed, then beaten to produce a metallic sheen. So highly prized are they by Tuareg men that, weight for weight, they are among the most expensive textiles in the world.

Matmata shawl

Indigo dyeing is widespread in West Africa. The dye pits and vats of Kano and Yorubaland in Nigeria and of St Louis in Senegal are justly famous. indigo was widely grown and traded until recent times, but now it is increasingly replaced by synthetic dyes, combines, in areas such as Senegal or Mali, with an admixture of gentian violet to achieve the deep, shiny purple-blue that is now so fashionable.

Adire cloth

Regardless of the dye used, methods of creating white motifs against an indigo-blue background remain the same. Usually a ‘resist’ is introduced into the cloth before it is dyed by stitching or trying sections of it with raphia or cotton thread, which is pulled extremely tight to prevent the dye from penetrating the enclosed cloth. During the 20th century machine-stitched resists became common in Nigeria and the Senegambia region. Originally the machine stitching was done by male tailors, but today – as the demands of commerce increasingly break down occupational barriers between the sexes – it is often women who carry out this work, particularly in Nigeria.

Adinkra textiles

More akin to the Asian tie-and-dye tradition are the multicoloured shawls from Matmata in southern Tunisia, while further south, around Tataouine, the woven bakhnug wool and cotton shawls are masterpieces of the dyer’s art.

raphia Cote d'Ivoire

Wax is widely employed as a resist medium for drawing designs on to fabric, and in Nigeria cassava starch is the resist used to produce the charming indigo-dyed adire cloths of Yorubaland. Hand-decorated adire cloths are traditionally made by women and stencilled versions by men, but Yoruba textile specialist Robert Clyne says that nowadays it is often women who do the stencilling as well (although the men cut out the zinc stencils). King George V and Queen Mary at their silver jubilee in 1935 is but one of the eccentric designs that have been used on adire cloths.

Cotton Hand Dyed African Batik

In Africa painted cloths have a talismanic significance often associated with hunting or warfare, and shirts bearing Arabic calligraphy were once believed to protect the wearer. However, the Senufo hunting cloths of CĂ´te d’Ivoire have been somewhat devalued by becoming a tourist item. Similarly, the bogolanfini ‘‘mud cloths’ of Mali are now exported wholesale to the United States.

Madagascar cloth

Madagascar has textiles which show both Indonesian and mainland African influences. Ikat on raphia is unique to the island, and beautiful funeral cloths in plain warp stripes are also characteristics.

2 Responses to African printed and dyed textiles

  1. Hi, after reading this remarkable post i am too happy to share my knowledge here with colleagues.

  2. daisy walker says:

    Over 30 textiles from the British Museum’s renowned collection are explored in detail: magnificent blue and white, indigo-resist-dyed cloths from West Africa; multi-coloured, tie-dyed and woven North African textiles; ‘mud cloths’ from Mali; the unique wrap-striped weaves and ikats from Madagascar; ‘adinkra’ block-print and painted ‘caligraphy’ cloths from Ghana; and the ‘adire’ cloths from Yorubaland.

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