Although historical pictures depict Africans as naked people who used to walk around without clothes, the truth of the matter is that Africa had its own fabrics before it got in touch with the rest of the world. Notice that it is falsely believed that the Ankara fabric traces its roots to the Dutch people. However, historical facts show that this is not true. There is evidence that African wore their own fabric earlier than the 1800s and so the 1900 pictures that showed them naked can only be treated as pigments of the drawer’s imaginations.

Note that before VLISCO set its foot in Africa in 1846, there existed some African print fabric. For instance, by 1300s, African people wore woven cotton and golden threads.  It is also believed that the Kanembu clothing tradition was already in existence in 800s. Also, the Bogolan came from the Kente cloth of Ghana, and the Mali traditional weavers. So we can confidently say that Africa had its own fabric as early as 5,000BC. Here are historical facts that try to explain that Africa had its own fabric way before it started interacting with the west.

1. The Bogolan Cloth or The Mud Cloth

The fabric industry in Africa is believed to have been in existence even before 5,000 BC. At this time, the Egyptians were already cultivating flax which they weaved into linen. The pottery that was found at Badari shows that the horizontal loom was already in existence. Also, the images from the tomb of Khnumhoteo shows that the horizontal loom was in use as early as 2400BC.  The hieroglyphs show that Egyptians were already wearing clothes by 2400BC.  Notice that the pyramids and sculptures all show that the Egyptians were wearing clothes by 2400BC. Also, the images of the Nubians in the south show that they already had a thriving textile industry as evidenced in the images on pyramids at Meroe.

2. Coming of Islam

Ibn Battuta who explored the African continent encountered and talked about weavers in Tumbutu as early as the 1300s. Also, the fact that when Islam was introduced in Africa, many converts started wearing boubou means that the fabric industry was already thriving by the time the religion was introduced.

Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta,One of The Greatest Scholar of All Time, in Egypt. Illustration by Leon Benett from book by Jules Verne, 1878. (Credit: Lanmas/Alamy Stock Photo)

3. The Kente Cloth

The Bogolan cloth was woven from a fabric that originated from Mali while the Kente cloth which was woven in Ghana is now the country’s national fabric. Also, the fact that, the Kings used to wear Kente cloth with golden threads in the olden days further attest that the textile industry was thriving in Ghana before 1800. Studies further show that the early British explorers were totally amazed by the beauty of the Ashanti attire. It tells us that there existed African fabric before the colonization era. In Cameroon, there is evidence that the bark of the tree was used to make fabric. Also, there is enough evidence that the Cameroonians made fabric from obom. The raffia fiber was woven into clothes and is still being used to make clothing and bags.  Still, in Cameroon, the kings were dressed in clothing that were finely woven and embellished with beads. Elsewhere, the pygmies made clothes from the tropical fig tree while the black people from the Central African Republic weaved cotton strip on horizontal looms.

Kente print

A Kente Print from Our Collection

4. The Ndebele Woman

The Ndembeles from Zimbabwe and South Africa have beautiful blankets and quilts that are handmade. It explains the elegance and color of the dresses the Ndebele women wear and suggests that Africans had their own wear. The Kuba from the Democratic Republic of Congo cannot be left behind. They used raffia to make beautiful blankets, sculpture, and clothing.

Ndebele Women

                                                                               Ndebele Women from South Africa

5. The VLISCO patterns

There is a growing belief that the VLISCO patterns are not European but were inspired by Africans. In fact, it is believed that they were designed to meet the needs of the people of African. It is true that Africans have worn VLISCO textiles for many years but this does not suggest that they did not contribute to the textile.

The founder of VLISCO Peter Fentener Van Vlissingen discovered that it was possible to mechanize the already existing wax-printing method which was used to make the African Wax hollandaise to make fabrics. Perhaps he was inspired by the fact that the Wax hollandaise used high-quality threads and was not only beautiful but elegant. This suggests that the Dutch company did not introduce the VLISCO fabric in Africa but instead improved on what was existing.  The fact that African prints were embedded in African culture which is still the source of national pride in many of the African state suggest that the continent had its own fabric many years before it got in touch with the western world.

It is believed that the Dutch who had seen the natives of Indonesia use wax resist dying to create pattern (Batik) enlisted West African men to assist their army in Indonesia. The African men liked the pattern, learned it and brought it to Africa when they returned. This is how Batik found its way in Africa. So when the method of applying resin to either side of a piece of cotton was born In Belgium at the end of the 19th century, the technology was already in Africa.

Vlisco

6. Batik

It is believed that the Dutch who had seen the natives of Indonesia use wax resist dying to create pattern (Batik) enlisted West African men to assist their army in Indonesia. The African men liked the pattern, learned it and brought it to Africa when they returned. This is how Batik found its way in Africa. So when the method of applying resin to either side of a piece of cotton was born In Belgium at the end of the 19th century, the technology was already in Africa.

7. Falsehood

BBC and New York Times have been on the forefront in falsifying facts and making the world believe Africa did not have its own fabric. In recent times, BBC ran a story on African textile tradition and VLISCO where it claimed that they are actually European. The New York Times, on the other hand, wrote a story claiming that indeed Africa’s fabric was Dutch. However, this is nothing but falsifying facts with the intention of creating more controversies.

Emerging Thoughts

Today, the African print fashion is closely associated with its heritage and is amazing in many aspects. The color, the pattern and the style are mind-boggling no wonder you will find them attracting people of all races from all over the world. The print fashion found in countries like Ghana, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and Nigeria showcase what the local tailors and seamstresses are capable of giving the world.

The Collapse of African Print Companies

Having talked so much about the history of African fabric, it is important to note that the Ankara fabric thrived in the early 60s, 70s, and 80s. It was not until in the 90s when the introduction of structural adjustment programs made many of the African prints to close. The measures, which were meant to encourage free market economies ended up removing tariffs, making the Asian made imports to become cheaper than the African made textiles. These Asian patterned print though low in quality were cheap and affordable to everyone. African clothing only flourished in women who could afford to buy the fabric. However, as the economies of African countries improve, there are signs that the high-end African merchandisers have begun to carry African attires. There are vendors who only deal in and sell African fabrics. This way they are able to express their national pride and supports the fact that Africa had its fabric way before it started interacting with the west.

 

Regardless of what history says about the African fabric, it is now becoming apparent that there existed some African fabric before the continent got in touch with the rest of the world.

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