Some of the oldest surviving African textiles were discovered at the archaeological site of Kissi in northern Burkina Faso. 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 from sites at Igbo Ukwu of the Igbo people of Nigeria. A considerable amount of cotton and wool textiles (clothes, shrouds and accessories) have been preserved in the Tellem caves in Mali, dating mainly to the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. Some fragments have also survived from the thirteenth century Benin City in Nigeria.
The knowledge of weaving and fabric production has existed for centuries throughout the continent. During the Trans-Atlantic slavery, many skilled weavers were taken, and took their knowledge along with them to North America, South America and the Caribbean.
Some examples of African textiles are the following:
- 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 is of great importance in many African cultures. The Dogon, for example, believe that spinning and weaving thread can be likened to human reproduction and the notion of rebirth. The colour of cloth is often of significance and is representative of specific qualities and attributes. For example, amongst the Ewe and Ashanti, black and white kente cloth is typically worn at funerals of elderly people to signify both a celebration of life and the mourning of death.
Traditionally, textile has been used to convey important cultural information, and often played a central role in festivities and ceremonies. Throughout the African continent, men, women and children wove cloth; often from an early age. Contrary to popular understanding, weaving and textile production was not restricted to men. Some examples of this are Akwete and Adire which were until very recently, produced exclusively by women. Cloth was considered to be of great value and so was also used as a form of currency.
Locally produced natural dyes allowed weavers in most areas to produce different shades of brown, green, yellow, and red, but one of the most important traditional dyes has been indigo.The tradition of cloth making still exists, and remains an important part of African culture. However, due to the influx and popularisation of Dutch Wax printed fabrics in addition to increasing urbanisation there has been a decline in the amount of indigenous textile produced.
- 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