The Anthropology of African Textile

The Quramo Report
5 min readAug 19, 2016
Cloth Weaving from Dynamic Africa (Tumblr)

I was always fascinated by mother’s clothes. I learned a lot about my culture and my heritage going through the contents of her varnished wardrobes. I would open up their doors and stare in wonder at her clothes, folded neatly and stacked on top of each other, breathing in the smell of camphor balls that enveloped them. My favourites were her vintage Aso Oke, deep ruby red Alaari, her beige Sanyan — she wore it on her wedding day, and the one I liked most — charcoal blue Etu.

I know now that my childhood fascination was not just a daughter discovering a part of her femininity in her mothers’ clothes, it was the seed of a much deeper and fuller experience, from it evolved a pride for my culture, a thirst for knowledge of things that are African. In most African cultures, clothes are indicative of a person’s identity, gender, class and ethnic nationality. To talk about the clothes of the peoples of Africa, is trying to discuss the clothes of the estimated 3000 ethnic nationalities that make up Africa, each with its own unique way of dressing, a wide array of clothes worn on different occasions, major life events.

Cloths can provide an anthropological map of the mankind’s sojourn in Africa. Early African clothing history has been pieced together from art, oral histories, and traditions. Our ancestors wore leaves, barks, hides and skins of animals and over time they discovered and perfected the art of making clothes suited to the weather of the continent — its majorly wet and dry season. African cloth was and is still made from raffia, spun cotton, flax, silk, camel, goat and sheep hairs and woven on looms into strips of cloth.

Western Africa is the land that runs from Senegal to Nigeria, the textiles made by people who live in this region have vibrant colours and patterns and are lightweight — the Kente of the Ashanti and Ewe of Ghana; from Nigeria, the Aso Oke and the Adire of the Yoruba, the Itinoci cloth of Okene, the Akwete of the Igbo, the shiny blue Kura cloth of the Hausa, the Fulani Kaasa and Arkila, the black and white stripped A’nger of the Tiv; the geometric mud clothes of the Bambara/Bamana people of Mali.

The Kanga is worn across Eastern Africa. Kangas are printed cloths, worn by the Swahili speaking people of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. In Southern Africa, deep blue indigo Lapu Lapu, ‘sun cloths of the Xhosa and the beautiful Shweshwe fabric from Lesotho. North African fabrics have been influenced by the Spanish, Turks and the Middle East. Egypt produces very good quality cotton, linen, flax and silk. The fine fabrics and brightly coloured silks of Morocco, the vibrant coloured woven wools of Tunisia

African clothes are both functional and artistic. In North eastern Africa, styles of traditional dressing — the embroidered Jelabiya has been influenced by the Middle East. The Northwest Africans were less influenced by foreign culture and have remained more in relative isolation. The Djellaba worn in North Western Africa shares similar properties with the West African Boubou, the Dashiki, and the Kaftan. In Sahelian Africa, the Dashiki, Senegalese Kaftan, and the grand Boubou are worn more prominently, though not exclusively (the Bògòlanfini, for instance, is worn in Mali). In contrast the grand Boubou is simpler, even more so than the Jellaba, though the color designs reach impressive proportions, especially among the Tuareg, who are known for their beautifully dyed indigo robes. Ashanti and Ewe men drape brightly patterned Kente around them. In East Africa, the Kanzu is the traditional dress worn by Swahili speaking men. Women wear the Kanga and the Gomesi. In Southern Africa distinctive shirts are worn, South Africa is known for the Madiba shirt, whereas, Zimbabwe is known for the safari shirt. In the Horn of Africa, the attire varies by country. In Ethiopia, men wear the Ethiopian suit and women wear the Habesha Kemis. In Somalia, men wear the Khameez with a small cap called a Koofiyad.

In Nigeria there is a very diverse of clothes due to the large number of ethnic nationalities that exist in the country. Yoruba Women wear Iro — one wrapper, Buba and a gele and may have an Iborun, the Igbo women tie 2 wrappers and a top with big puff sleeves and a headtie, the Hausa 2 wrappers, a top and with lacy scarfs. Yoruba men wear Buba, Sokoto and fila, sometimes putting on an agabada over the buba, Igbo men tie a wrapper or trouser under a big shirt and red or knitted cap. Hausa men wear a three piece wando, Dasiki and Babariga and heavily embroidered caps, Itsekiri men wear a long sleeved shirt called a Kemeje tie a wrapper, a hat and carry a walking stick.

Accessories to African clothes, headdresses, earrings, rings, bangles, beads — waist beads, anklets, armlets, and neckpieces are all carefully and skillfully crafted. These accessories come in vivid colours and intricate designs which set apart their wearers from the widely available — machine rushed western costume accessories. A visit to the craft market at Jakande 4th Roundabout Lekki provides a trove of these miniature works of art. The artisans, mostly men from West Africa, make jewelry from metal, leather, wood, beads, horn and pearls. No two of the jewelries are the same, even those sold as pairs.

There has been a renaissance in the appreciation of African textiles in contemporary fashion and use in everyday life. There is an ongoing dynamic redefinition and remaking of what is referred to as African clothing and what can be made with these clothes. African and international fashion designers now include African fabrics in their collections — models strut runways in distinctively African jewellery and clothes in the fashion capitals of the world. Interior decorators have revitalized our living, leisure and working spaces with African themes — throw pillows, curtains, tablecloths made with African materials making them part of our lives, our personal spaces again.

Olufunke Ogundimu is a writer. She is currently enrolled in an MFA programme at the University of Nevada.

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