11 Types of African Textiles You Should Explore

Africa is one continent blessed with creative artisans all about. This creativity is obvious in the many types of African textiles existing today. The notable features about these fabrics are the fact that they have been in existence for a long while and they remain versatile even to date. To be specific, these fabrics can be used to make any attire and still exude unadulterated Afrocentrism.

How many of these African fabrics do you know? Not many?

Well, it won’t matter anymore because you’ll be more knowledgeable about the types of African textiles once you’re done with this article.

But first, let’s see what these textiles are.

What are African Textiles?

These are fabrics made and peculiar to the people of Africa. They usually have unique styles, techniques and dyeing methods. They also meet different purposes in terms of functionality and decoration.

Furthermore, African textiles bear much significance to African culture and heritage. In fact, they serve as historical “documents” of African design as a whole. They are the major form of expression Africans use as a means of self-definition.

Significance and Uses of African Textiles

As stated earlier, these fabrics are versatile and can be used for anything including communication. Let’s see how:

1. As a Means of Communication

African fabrics serve as a means of communication of history and culture among indigenes. It is a form of storytelling and non-verbal communication that replaces written word to pass messages of importance for society at large.

For instance, the choice of colours, threads, dyes, symbols, etc., all point at historical elements, events, proverbs and symbols which indigenes always relate to.

Furthermore, these fabrics help to call to mind that time in history when everyone, including kings and queens, wore them all about in majesty and splendour.

2. As a Source of Clothing

These fabrics are used to make native wears such as Agbada, senator, iro and buba and others as the case may be. Some of these traditional attires have now become mainstream such that they are hardly regarded as a native attire. In addition, African fabrics can as well be used as a form of background for public ceremonies and festivals. This was popular back in the day.

3. To Mark Special Occasions

Aboriginally, African textiles were controlled by chiefs and traditional heads to mark and commemorate special occasions such as festivals, weddings, funerals, etc. But as time evolved, the fabric gained access into every hand. Hence, it has now become a means to make a social and political statement. For example, these fabrics are used to show solidarity during these events.

4. As a Form of Identity

Wearing these textiles makes you feel African. This is an indubitable fact and also one of the uses of these indigenous fabrics. Besides being a form of clothing and warmth, it is an expression of an identity peculiar to Africans. This identity cannot be gotten from western clothing.

Types of African Textiles

1. Ankara

Ankara fabric

 The Ankara fabric was originally produced by the Dutch for the Indonesian textile market through a process called ‘Batik. It is also known as African wax printKitenge/Chitenge or Dutch wax print.

lady rocking ankara peplum top and skirt

It is known for its colourful prints that represents the African culture. Most of the time, these prints tell different stories.

3 men in ankara suits

 Furthermore, nowadays, Ankara is used to produce different clothing styles and accessories. There is virtually no excuse not to wear Ankara. This is because there’s a wide array of options for its use. That is, if you can’t wear it as clothes, wear it as shoes and earrings. You can carry it as a bag or use it as a phone casing.

2. Ukara Ekpe

ukara ekpe textile

Ukara Ekpe is a textile woven in Abakaliki, Ebonyi state in Nigeria. It comprises a woven material usually dyed blue, sometimes green or red. To make this fabric, elderly women dye the material in secret while young men do so in public. On this textile are nsibidi symbols and motifs usually designed by male nsibidi artists in Igbo-speaking towns.

African men wearing ukara ekpe wrappers at an event

These symbols include masks, metal rods, moons, trees, stars, feathers, hands in friendship, war and work, etc., are all embossed on this fabric. Originally, Ukara was a symbol of wealth and power given to titled men and elderly women.

men wearing the ukara ekpe cloth in traditional procession

3. Kente

kente materials

Kente is a Ghanaian fabric made of handwoven cloth strips of silk and cotton. It gets its name from the word “kenten”, which means “basket” in the Asante dialect of Akan language.

This fabric developed from different weaving traditions that existed in Ghana before the 11th century. Also, folklore has it that weavers invented kente by trying to replicate the patterns of the spider called Anansi. And according to history, royalty wore Kente for religious and sacred purposes. However, these days it has evolved to be a symbol of African heritage for all and sundry.

Moreover, the colours of Kente fabric are not always in isolation as they have meanings attached to them. For instance, white stands for purification and sanctification rites while black represents mourning.

4. Adire

woman making adire fabric

Adire is an indigo-dyed textile art that involves tie and dye. Historically, the Yoruba women in Nigeria made this textile. It is usually achieved by using different resist-dyeing techniques to create a pattern. This is done by preventing certain parts of the fabric from absorbing dye.

Adire styles has been blended into both tailored and ready-to-wear pieces. To illustrate, you can take this textile to your tailor to sew something for you. And you can also take your ready-made clothes to textile artists to tie and dye them into Adire.

5. Isi Agu

The name ‘Isi-Agu’ means lion’s head in Igbo. Basically, this fabric has lion’s head prints on it. Isi Agu is often used to make a pullover tunic shirt that is either long or short-sleeved.  This shirt also called ‘Chieftaincy’ was traditionally given to a man anytime he got a chieftaincy title. The attire is usually paired with a red fez hat or the Igbo leopard cap known as Okpu Agu in Igbo language.

6. Bogolan

bogolan fabric

This is otherwise called mudcloth. It is produced by the Bambara tribe of Mali. The meaning of the name of this textile in Bambara is ‘made from mud’. It is one of the types of African textiles that doesn’t have any harmful chemicals because it uses dried plants and fruits as dye.

lady in a bogolan dress

This fabric is traditionally dyed with fermented mud. To begin the process, Malian men usually weave cotton thread on a loom. Then they make the dyes by mixing roots, tree barks, leaves, and wild grapes together. The process of making this textile is thoroughly handmade. However, it is time-consuming and takes four to seven days depending on the weather.

model wearing bogolan dress

Besides clothing reasons, mudcloth is also used for art and decoration. For instance, hotels often use Bogolan as tablecloths, pillows, upholstery or as wall decorations for walls. In addition, African warriors and hunters of years ago used Bogolan as a form of camouflage.

7. Barkcloth

barkcloth fabric

This is a type of African textiles that is peculiar to Uganda. It is basically made from trees of the Moraceae family, including Broussonetia papyrifera, Artocarpus altilis, and Ficus natalensis. To produce this fabric, one has to beat sodden strips of the fibrous inner bark of these trees into sheets. Afterwards, they are made into different items.

model wearing a dress made from barkcloth on the runway
children wearing barkcloth on Ugandan traditional day

8. Shweshwe

Shweshwe fabrics

This fabric is produced in various colours and printing designs that feature intricate geometric patterns. It is a printed dyed cotton fabric commonly used as the traditional clothing for South Africa.

4 ladies rocking shweshwe dresses

This fabric derived its name from its connection with Lesotho’s King Moshoeshoe I (also spelled as ‘Moshweshwe’). During the 1840s, the French missionaries gifted the king this fabric and he ended up making it popular.

couple wearing shweshwe outfit

Furthermore, as a result of its popularity, shweshwe is often regarded as the tartan or denim of South Africa.

9. Kikoy

kikoy fabric

This material is pecular to the people of Tanzania and Kenya. It is handmade and made with cotton. After production, this fabric is used to make wrappers, beach towel, head wrap, home decorations, skirts, shirts, etc.

2 beautiful ladies rocking kikoy dresses
white lady wearing blue Kikoy dress

10. Kanga

Kanga fabric

This is a piece of cotton fabric from East Africa. It is similar to Kitenge but lighter than it. Some Kanga African textiles usually have words of wisdom, blessings and friendship printed on them. It also symbolises Swahili expressions.

lady wearing kanga skirt

Furthermore, apart from clothing, kanga can be used to make baby carriers, home decor, shirts, head wraps, etc.

man wrapped in kanga fabrics

11. Aso Oke

colorful aso oke materials

 This is a hand-woven cloth the Yoruba people of Nigeria produce. The name of this textile means “top cloth”. In actual sense, it refers to clothing of high status.

beautiful couple in aso oke outfit

When produced, the fabric is used to make Agbada and fila (hat). It is also used to make women’s Iro and Buba with the headwear called Gele.

lady wearing aso oke dress

The method of making this fabric hasn’t changed for centuries now. However, manufacturers have created new production techniques to reduce it’s thickness. Thus, this makes it more suitable for casual wear.

Among the ways designers have modernised this textile is to merge animal and floral motifs into distinct shapes of geometry and grids. Hence, it becomes suitable for computer design applications.

Do you see now that you have a variety of options on African textiles to use for your native attires? You can settle for any within your location and make them into any cloth design you like, even if it’s Afro-urban.

Victoria B. Willie

Victoria Willie is an SEO content writer, copywriter and a fashion enthusiast who believes in the power of imaginations. She derives pleasure in reading, writing, meeting new people and doing fashion. When she isn't writing, she is designing clothes for her fashion brand, Ria Kosher. She is the co-author of Amina, a collection of love poems.

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