You can find great fabrics all over Africa. Kenya and Tanzania are known for their colourful wrappers: kanga for women and kikoy for men. Mozambique has its capulana. Ethiopian women wrap themselves in white cotton natellas, while men wear gabis. Southern Africa has its distinctive blue print called Shwe Shwe, used mostly for dressmaking and tailoring. And you’ll see wax prints almost everywhere, even if they are only Chinese copies.
But for real fabric hunting, you should venture into West Africa, where the old textile traditions originate and are (mostly) still alive and flourishing.
To help you on your way, we sought the insight of experienced fabric hunters Robert Irwin and Magie Relph.
African wax print fabric
‘African wax print fabric is a defining metaphor of African design, fashion and expression — an immediately recongisable icon throughout the world.’ This is a quote from our book African Wax Print: A Textile Journey which sums it up perfectly.
Historically, this fabric originated in Holland, but the biggest producers by far were in Manchester. Vlisco still prints in Holland, but the only remaining UK company – ABC – now prints in Ghana. Today, most so-called wax print in African markets is not wax print at all: it’s cheap counterfeit cloth from China.
Also called ‘bogolan’, this is one of Africa’s most unusual and unique textiles. Narrow strips of handwoven cotton are stitched together into a whole cloth, then painted with patterns and symbols using a variety of natural dyes, including river mud that has been aged for up to one year.
It’s only made by the Bamana and Dogon people in crisis-stricken Mali, which means it’s not the easiest textile to source. Today, Malian traders take mud cloth out of the country, so you can now find it elsewhere, though often at an inflated price.
Before Europeans started trading manufactured cloth into Africa, indigo was one of the only dyes available for dyeing locally grown, handspun and handwoven cotton cloth.
Think of the Tuareg, legendary blue men of the desert, faces wrapped in their indigo-dyed tagalmust. Where does this signature textile come from? All the way from the 500-year-old dye pits of Kano in northern Nigeria.
Dyeing cloth with indigo for local use is still a big industry all over West Africa. We’ve bought indigo in the Fouta Djallon highlands of Guinea, in Mali’s Bandiagara escarpment and from makers and markets in Senegal, The Gambia, Burkina Faso and Ghana.
Kola nut – chewed as a social ritual – is culturally important in West Africa. To show your respect, you should always bring a handful of kola nuts when you visit somebody’s compound. When the nuts are too old and dry to chew, dyers pound them into a paste to make an orange-brown dye for their cloth.
We found a rare example called sacre bois (sacred forest) cloth in the remote forest region of southern Guinea. In his village compound in The Gambia, our good friend and indigo dyer Musa Jaiteh combines kola nut with indigo. As far we know, he’s the only dyer left in The Gambia keeping this particular tradition alive.
In the villages around Korhogo – a regional market town in northern Côte d’Ivoire – the Senufo people use a fermented mud ink to paint handwoven cotton cloths with animal and human forms.
Picasso went there in the 1930s and you can see the influence of their naive designs in his paintings from that period.
Hand-dyed batik and tie-dye
Tie-dye is self-explanatory, but what about batik? Batik goes back to 8th century China and then India, before it was perfected by the Javanese, beginning in the 13th century.
Using various tools, you apply multiple layers of wax onto cloth, before dipping the cloth into multiple dye vats. Where there is wax, the dye will not colour the cloth.
You’ll find tie-dye and batik in East Africa, but it is generally poor quality, produced for the tourist market. West Africa is completely different: in Ghana and The Gambia in particular, batik has evolved into a genuine textile art form.
Vintage and collectable cloths
Africa’s textile traditions – particularly weaving and dyeing – go way back. Yet many are still thriving today. In the national museum of Mali in Bamako, we admired a fragment of indigo-dyed woven cloth from the 11th century. Later, in the market, we found exactly the same cloth – same dye, same loom, same design – woven today in a Mali village.
That said, times are changing. Modern makers can’t always afford the time it takes to work in the traditional way. This means that some modern cloths may not match the old ones for fineness or quality. Now we’re into vintage cloths – where you can expect to add a few zeros to the price.
Kente – handwoven by the Ashanti in Ghana and by the Ewe straddling the Ghana border into Togo – is arguably the king of African textiles.
When we can afford it, we invest in the occasional fine vintage Kente from a trusted dealer in Accra. We sometimes buy top quality modern Kente from Ahiagble Bob Dennis, an Ewe weaver in Tema, Ghana. Bob is well trained: the British Museum has pieces by his father Bobo.
Elsewhere on our travels, we look for other traditional woven cloths, such as hand-dyed indigo Mossi cloths from Burkina Faso and handwoven Baoulé cloths from Côte d’Ivoire.
Adinkra – a traditional Ashanti funeral cloth – comes from Ntonso, near Kumasi, Ghana. Old Adinkra is much sought-after, hard to find and correspondingly expensive.
Of all the traditional Nigerian cloths, Adire is probably the most impressive. Artists use various tools including chicken feathers to paint the cloth with a starch paste made from cassava, before dipping it into the indigo vat. These treasured cloths are getting more rare and expensive.
Want to know more?
Visit SIAO (Salon International de l’Artisanat de Ouagadougou, 26 October – 4 November 2018). This biannual pan-African arts and crafts exhibition comprises five purpose-built pavilions covering seven hectares. Makers and traders come from all over Africa, so there is always something new and different.
Robert Irwin and Magie Relph have been travelling in Africa for over 30 years, researching, documenting and buying textiles for their fair trade business The African Fabric Shop (www.africanfabric.co.uk)