Vanishing Textiles of Africa

In Alan Donovan’s Textile Heritage Collection, he reiterates the opinions of many, that ‘Africa has contributed a rich legacy to the world of art, but it is in the fields of sculpture and textiles that its contribution has been the richest. Textiles in Africa are a major art form leading to prestige for the weaver or dyer, as well as for the wearer. African textiles are a source of intrigue and inspiration to fashion and fabric designers throughout the world while African creativity continues to combine and blend outside influences with age-old techniques and traditions.’ You can imagine the shock of many upon the discovery that African Print is not really African. Not originally anyway.

African Print or Ankara as we know it was not originally from Africa, nor is it made by Africans. It is actually not made by Africans even today – at least not on a notable scale. African Print or Wax Print as it is originally known hails from Indonesia and is made through a wax resisting dyeing technique called batik. Batik is a process where wax is melted and patterned on a plain cloth and soaked in dye. The dye dries, wax is removed, and the process is the repeated with different colours and patterns for the intricate design fabrics we see today. On 2nd October 2009, this batiking process was inscribed to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This day is still celebrated every Year in Indonesia and is known as the Batik Day.

In the 1800’s, Indonesia was colonised by the Dutch, they quickly learnt this dying process, and developed a machine printing process that would imitate batik and flooded the market with cheaper imitations to the original hand-crafted batik prints from Indonesia. It is noted that these did not do as well in Europe and Indonesia as the original batik fabrics, and when the Dutch started trade through the West African coast, they came with their batik ‘knock-offs’ which were embraced with the full flamboyance of the West African people because of the fabrics’ vibrant colours and prints.

Worn with pride in Central and West Africa, the Dutch realised the potential of this budding market and started creating prints that will specifically resonate with the West African Buyer. The Vlisco (founded in 1846) website proudly states that it has been designing and manufacturing distinctive fabrics loved by African women since 1846. It is not until the 1960’s that African manufacturers in Ghana and Nigeria started producing their own factory-run ‘African prints’ and the Chinese quickly followed suit, making this once authentic and unique printing process available for the masses. Authentic Indonesian batik is still available – at a premium.

What IS African Print?

Looking at the history of African fabrics, you will quickly note that Africans were not colourists, per-se.  African fabrics date back to 5,000 BC when the Ancient Egyptians started weaving linen from Flax. Linen is still a popular fabric woven in North Africa down to Ethiopia. They were weavers and created the most unique and desirable designs through weaving. Every country had its speciality. There are numerous fabrics to list, but I’ll only mention the most notable.  

The Kente (meaning basket) is a woven cloth that comes from the Ashanti of Ghana. The Kente (meaning basket) is a woven cloth that comes from the Ashanti of Ghana. It is believed that the kente weaving process was created by two farmers observing a spider weaving its web. Initially made from raffia fibres in white, brown and black, the kente cloth reminiscent of the Ashanti kingdoms were woven from silk that the Ashanti bought from the trans-Saharan trade route. The women purchased the silk which was then woven by the men. The best of the best kente fabrics were also woven with Gold Fibre for the Ashanti King. Today, although not as popular, original kente fabric is still available, with its biggest imitator being a wax-print version of its intricate and bright designs.

The Bogolanfini loosely translated to Mud-Cloth came from Mali. (Bogo means ‘earth’, Lan means ‘with’ and Fini means ‘cloth’). The men would weave the cloth, and the women would dye it through a repeat process of soaking in a leaf bath and covering with mud, then creating patterns with a bleach solution. It is almost impossible to find original mud cloth today, and very expensive to buy – if they sell it to you.

Barkcloth is a stiff cloth made from the inner bark of the mulberry (or similar) tree. An ancient craft of the Baganda people from the Buganda kingdom in Southern Uganda, barkcloth was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. It is prepared by harvesting the inner bark of the tree during the wet season and beating this down to give it a soft texture and terracotta colour and was died black for royalty. This cloth is almost impossible to find for sale today and will be mostly found in museums and with collectors.

Kuba Cloths by the Kuba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are made from a variety of weaves from palm leaf fibre and are more generally known as Raffia. Historically, the Kuba people used the kuba cloth as mats, wrappers, skirts and even currency, and were created from various weaving methods of dyed fibres in brown and cream tones. The men would weave the fibre into cloth, and then give this to the women to smoothen out and add all the necessary decorations. The kuba cloth can still be found for sale in a few places today and is pretty difficult to duplicate due to its unique texture and finish.

The Obom from Cameroon is not dissimilar from the barkcloth of Uganda as it was also made from the bark of the aloa tree. Just like the barkcloth, the inner bark of the tree was harvested, treated in hot water and flattened. They were originally used as loin cloths for the men. The rarity and uniqueness of this fabric has seen it being used in paintings and wall hangings never sold as actual fabric.

There is no telling if these unique cloth making practices will be retained for future generations. But one thing is for sure, the rarer they get, the more they increase in value, making them an art collector’s dream.

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