The earliest surviving sub-Saharan African textiles were discovered at the archaeological site of Kissi in northern Burkina Faso and date to the first centuries CE. They are made of wool or fine animal hair in a weft-faced plain weave pattern. Further cloth fragments and parchment fragments date to the ninth century CE from sites at Igbo Ukwu of the Igbo people of Nigeria. A considerable amount of cotton and wool textiles (clothes, shrouds and accessoires) has been preserved in the Tellem caves in Mali, dating mainly to the eleventh to thirteenth centuries CE. Some fragments have also survived from thirteenth century Benin City in Nigeria.
African textiles are a part of African cultural heritage that came to America along with the slave trade. As many slaves were skilled in the weaving, this skill was used as another form of income for the slave owner.
In most of Africa the weavers were men while the women spun the thread. The weavers in many of the countries were part of a caste-like group and sometimes slaves to noble families. In Yoruba compounds were used where master weavers would teach all the boys weaving and all the girls would learn to spin and dye the yarn. And children did some jobs too, like providing fabric and also weaved at a very young age of 4.
Some examples of African textiles are:
- Akwete cloth -woven by Igbo people
- Ukara dyed indigo cloth by Igbo people
- Aso oke fabric - woven by Yoruba people
- Adire- tie-dye produced by Yoruba people
- Kente cloth - woven by Ashanti and Ewe people
- Barkcloth - produced by the Buganda tribe
- Mudcloth- produced by the Bambara tribe
- Kitenge - produced from Kenya and other regions of East Africa
- Shweshwe – produced in South Africa
Weaving has many spiritual and mythical meaning behind it. One, is that from the Dogons who believe that each stage of spinning and weaving thread is a symbolic analogy to human reproduction and resurrection. With this, they believe that the processes of spinning and weaving could only be done in daylight hours. To work at night would be to weave silence and darkness into the cloth. The color of the cloth can also have some spiritual meaning. In one tribe a white cloth used by healing women is thought to be linked to water spirits. Although there are many meanings to the designs on the cloth very few are directly represented on the cloth itself.
Textiles were also used as a form of identity with each African tribe having their own unique patterns which also made it easy to spot outsiders. Many different types of patterns were formed in places that specialized in weaving. Kings would request several types of cloth to show their prestige and importance. Kings would even compare themselves by how many robes they had and what they were made out of.
Weaving and the textiles were and still are very important to the African culture. The textiles included both men and women and the cloth they made was unique to their tribe through the patterns and spiritual meanings behind them. the designs also had aztec designs in Many centuries ago, hair from animals was woven to insulate and protect homes. Hair, along with fibers from various plants and trees, were used to create bedding, blankets, clothing, and wall, window and door hangings. As textiles became more sophisticated, they were also used as currency for trading. Many of the ancient designs and weaving methods are used today and remain an important part of African lifestyles. The main method of decorating cloth throughout Africa is the dyeing of thread or completed cloths. Although there were a small range of locally produced plant dyes that allowed weavers in most areas to produce a few shades of brown, green, yellow, and in some cases red, by far the most important dye in Africa has been indigo. The vast majority of cloth produced on the continent over the centuries was simple designs produced by combining the natural white (and sometimes beige) of the cotton fibres with stripes of various shades of indigo blue. Depending on the relative density of the warp and weft threads, the resulting cloths could have stripes down the strip (warp- faced) or across the strip (weft-faced.)They mostly wore the skin of the animal and some times wove the fur into a piece of clothing. The women wove the fabric and textiles.
- Magnavita, S. 2008. The oldest textiles from sub-Saharan West Africa: woolen facts from Kissi, Burkina Faso. Journal of African Archaeology 8 (2), 243-257.
- Christopher Spring, African Textiles, (New York: Crescent) 1989, p. 3