With global celebrities stepping out on the red carpet and turning heads in the streets, African fabrics have managed to leave the shores of the continent and create their fashion. The continent has a thriving industry which exports colorful fabrics. From Dashikis to Buba to other African inspired dresses, people of all works of life find fascinating colors, patterns, feel, and origin in most of these fabrics. Much of African fabrics are deeply rooted in the cultures and traditions of the community from which they originate.
Like many events and objects in Africa, some of these colorful fabrics are said to bring happiness or protection depending on how they are made and what they are made of.
Dyed brocade is made from pure, soft cotton fabric commonly found in West Africa, and Mali is the world’s largest distributor. Traditionally, these fabrics are hand-dyed using local materials such as plants, clay, and soda ash. The fabrics are dried in the sun after dying. The beautiful finish is achieved by embroidery, knotting, waxing or painting before packaging for sale. More recently, the use of chemicals has replaced traditional methods due to the complexity of modern life, which creates additional demand in the fabric market. The fabric is velvety and has an impression of tenderness. Bamako has an advanced colorful brocade industry that employs over 250,000 people in the region after surviving the 2012 political crisis that hit the state.
Kente is a popular African fabric in Ghana. By its name, derived from “Kenten” (basket), Kente is an intricately patterned fabric, hand-woven from cotton yarn in the same way as in a basket. These patterns are finely crafted to represent the mind of the artist at the time. Like different drum beats, the Kente patterns are intertwined to form a story or riddle . No two Kente have the same pattern or the same meaning, and each has its own literal meaning. It is used for ceremonies, special occasions and weddings in Ghana as it is an integral part of their culture. Since then, Kente has grown in popularity around the world with celebrities standing out on red carpets draped in beautiful fabrics in bright colors like red, yellow, blue and purple.
Shweshwe are traditionally worn by Xhosa women in South Africa. This fabric, which appears in different shades of indigo, is believed to have traveled to Africa with Indian and Arab traders over 2,000 years ago. It is a stiff rustling cotton material used for important ceremonies, and has become one of the main stitches in modern African clothing lines. The fabric is believed to be named after the Basotho king Moshoeshoe 1, while others believe the fabric was given to the king by French missionaries in the 1840s, hence the name Ishweshwe.
This is a rag found in Uganda made from the inner bark of the Moraceae tree. The inner bark of the tree is chipped and soaked in moisture. These tapes are rolled up in sheets and finished with various elements. Bark cloth is a thick, highly textured material that is often rough to the touch. More recently, it is made from intricately woven cotton fabric and is used for interior fittings such as curtains, drapery, and sleepovers .
Adire is a carefully hand-dyed fabric made in Nigeria. The cotton materials are soaked in multicolored dyes to form abstract colored patterns. This business was often dominated by women from western Nigeria who learned the skill as part of their family heritage. However, almost all of the agencies that have expertise in clothing and textiles are involved in the trade. Although industrial methods used to meet the growing demand for fabric, the market collapsed in the 1930s due to high demand. The material of indigo cotton was originally two different clothes stitched together. Today, people prefer a similarly light colored wax pattern material called Kampala. Some still know it as Adire.
Bogolanfini or Bologna is a fabric native to Mali; a cotton cloth is dyed in fermented clay to give it a brown color. It is believed to enhance the protection of hunters who use it for camouflage while hunting; women in childbirth use it believing that it has healing powers.
The delicate embroidered patterns on this fabric are deeply rooted in mythological concepts, historical facts and crocodiles. Mud cloth is exported to other countries and has become an integral part of global fashion, art and design. It is often used for wall hangings and mosaic patterns.