Decorative Techniques

The main method of decorating cloth throughout Africa is the dyeing of thread or completed cloths. Although there were a small range of locally produced plant dyes that allowed weavers in most areas to produce a few shades of brown, green, yellow, and in some cases red, by far the most important dye in Africa has been indigo. The vast majority of cloth produced on the continent over the centuries was simple designs produced by combining the natural white (and sometimes beige) of the cotton fibres with stripes of various shades of indigo blue. Depending on the relative density of the warp and weft threads, the resulting cloths could have stripes down the strip (warp- faced) or across the strip (weft-faced.)

warp faced warp faced
warp faced cloth weft faced cloth

Dyeing was itself an important business at which high degrees of specialist skill was developed in centres such as the Hausa city of Kano. Very thin, fine quality, narrow-strip cloth dyed a dark indigo in villages near Kano, then carefully beaten with extra indigo paste by specialist cloth beaters until it took on a glazed sheen, are still an extremely expensive and highly valued cloth worn as face veils by Tuareg and other nomads throughout North Africa. See our indigo dyeing page.
In addition to pattern effects such as stripes and checks produced by varying the colours of thread used, African weavers utilise a limited set of decorative techniques in the process of weaving cloth. These include float weaving, where extra threads float across, or more rarely down, a piece of cloth, openwork, pile weave, and more rarely tapestry weave, and weft inserts.

warp faced warp faced
supplementary weft float - extra design weft threads float across the strip. supplementary warp float - extra design warp threads float down the strip.
warp faced warp faced
openwork - in typical Yoruba style with threads floated down cloth strip pile weave on an Ijebu Yoruba shawl

There are also a number of techniques used to decorate a cloth after it has been woven. Most of these had their origins in the indigenous weaving industry but have later been applied to the decoration of imported cloth. Dyers have utilised a variety of methods of resist dyeing, i.e. the dyeing of thread or fabric which has been treated so that part of it resists the dye, leaving a pattern on the cloth. These include ikat weaving among the Baule of Côte D'Ivoire and the Yoruba of Nigeria and a number of traditions that utilise starch resist or tie and dye, of which the adire of the Yoruba is best known. A separate and unique method of dyeing is used to produce the mud-dyed bogolanfini in Mali. The Asante of Ghana utilise a type of printing using stamps made from sections of calabash shell to produce a patterned cloth called adinkra. Embroidery is found in numerous styles, including on the Kuba raffia cloths of Congo and the robes of northern Nigeria. Finally there are a few distinct traditions of applique, where sections from different cloths are sewn together to make designs. Among the best known of these are the flags of the Fon kings of precolonial Danhome, and the Asafo war flags of the Fante companies of coastal Ghana.

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