Popular African Fabrics; History and Origins

Popular African Fabrics; History and Origins

As unique as the people who make and wear them, African fabrics are currently enjoying a massive share of the fashion spotlight all around the world. These unique fabrics are being used diversely as art, for aesthetic purposes and to fulfil the elemental human need for clothing.

The history of the African textile industry dates as far back as Africa’s first civilisation─ Egypt─ and records that ancient Egyptians manufactured clothing by cultivating flax. This period preceded the discovery and later adoption of cotton for cloth making.

Today, thanks to globalisation and great advancements in industrial technology, most African fabrics are manufactured and used in foreign countries. Though this does not make them less African in use or identity, it necessitates a need to establish and chronicle the origins of these fabrics.


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Also known as mud cloth or bògòlan, this usually handmade fabric is indigenous to Mali, in West Africa. It is made with cotton, which is dyed in fermented mud following ancient procedures. Though produced in many parts of Mali, the town of San is regarded as the best place to procure the highest quality bògòlan fabric. Traditionally, roles in the production of the fabric are gender based─ men weave the cloth while women see to the dyeing.

In Mali, bògòlanfini has great cultural, religious and economic significance. It is perceived as having spiritual properties and is used during important rites after childbirth or age grade initiation ceremonies. Local hunters have also been recorded to use it as camouflage when hunting. It is also a popular Malian export and is used to make art as well.

Bark Cloth

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Cameroon and Uganda have a history of making clothes from the bark of trees. In Cameroon, the obom (tissue) of the aloa tree was used in the past to fashion out loincloths but this practice seems to have faded out. However, local artists still use it as a canvas for paintings.

In Uganda, the Baganda people who dwell near Lake Victoria still produce bark cloth, which they use for exclusive rituals and other ceremonies like funerals. They make them from the inner bark of the moraceae tree that is first shredded into strips before being beaten into shape. Bark cloth has been adopted for other uses such as in home accessories, like draperies.



Translated, it means top cloth, which hints at its elevated status among fabrics. Aso-oke is indigenous to the Yoruba of Nigeria especially the Iseyin, Ede and Okene peoples. Men and women are both involved in its production and there seems to be no separation of duties along gender lines.

Basically there are three types of aso-oke namely; alaari, etu and sanyan. The finished aso-oke is distinct in both look and feel, and it is reserved for special events and ceremonies. In modern times, aso-oke is used in a variety of ways that include the making of footwear, furniture, bags and throw pillows.


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Although believed to have been imported from Europe to Africa by French missionaries, the Xhosa people of South Africa are responsible for popularising shweshwe so well that it has become part of their cultural fabric and identity.

Shweshwe is customarily worn by Xhosa women and comes in various hues of indigo. It is made with dyed cotton that is then imprinted with complex patterns. Presently, it is used in many contemporary ways and features heavily in the stock of modern African fashion brands.


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As legends go, no two kente fabrics have the same pattern. Native to the Akan-people, kente is regarded as the national cloth of Ghana and is arguably the most popular among African fabrics

To underscore its importance among Ghanaians, kente was only worn by kings and royalty in the past. Today, its use is much more widespread and it can be found almost everywhere in the world.


Tomiwa Yussuf has a background in History/International studies. With a strong bias for fictional art of varying forms, he contributes to a couple of literary blogs and is an in-house editor at nantygreens.com. When he’s not writing, he pursues other interests like digital marketing, social work and sports.

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