On this page we introduce you to a few of the many textile traditions of the French-speaking countries of West Africa, specifically Burkina Faso, Cote D'Ivoire, Niger, Mali, Senegal, Togo, Benin and Guinea. Clearly the separation into Anglophone and Francophone blocks when discussing textile traditions is largely an arbitrary one - it is important to note that cloth making and cloth using traditions and practices did not follow colonial or national boundaries, being instead either more locally specific or in some instances more widely distributed.
|Early C20th postcard captioned "A notable of Conakry and his wife" (photographer/publisher A. James.) The man wears a tailored boubou of Islamic inspiration, the woman a wrapper of locally woven cloth under a tailored blouse of imported fabric.|
Here we can however make only a few introductory pointers. Across the region a wide range of mostly blue and white warped striped cotton cloths was woven in narrow strips of various widths by male weavers using the double heddle loom. Plain white cloths were resist dyed with indigo, or in parts of Mali, painted with mud pigments. Wider cloths woven by women on single heddle looms were found only in parts of Benin (formerly Dahomey) and Togo. Decorative techniques used in some areas included supplementary weft float, and more rarely warp ikat and warp float.
|Fragment of an arkilla kunta, a wool marriage blanket of the Songhay, woven in the Niger bend region of Mali.|
As elsewhere in West Africa dress involved an interplay between tailored and wrapped cloths, with robes or boubou important in areas where Islamic influence was marked. At least from the late C19th these also interacted with European influenced dress modes as the picture above illustrates. Islam played an important part in the distribution of weaving and textiles, both through its influence on dress styles and through its crucial role in long distance trade, but by no means all weavers were Muslims.
|Malinke weaver, Guinee, 1905. Old postcard, publisher/photographer Edmond Fortier.|
The second major group of cloths associated with Francophone West Africa are the blankets and covers mostly woven in areas of the Sahel, an arid region of semi-desert south of the Sahara, stretching across large areas of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and the extreme north of Nigeria. Throughout this area wool or cotton blankets and cover cloths are used both for warmth in the surprisingly cold nights and as protection against mosquitoes. Weavers of Mande speaking origin (Dioula/Dyula, Mande, Bamana, Maninka, Mandingo, Yarse, etc) would seem to be the most widespread and influential producers of these cloths, but distinctive types are also made by the Fulani (Peul), Hausa, and Dogon among others. All utilise a weft faced weave structure, producing bands of designs across the cloth strips. This appears to be an ancient technique in the area as it is used on Tellem textile fragments dating back to the C11th &12th found in Bandiagara, Mali. Both the blankets and the influence of their design have in the past spread far south into the forest belt, for example in Sierra Leone, and even influenced certain types of Ewe weaving. Through the twentieth century some cloths, such as Fulani kaasa and arkila, continued to be woven in long established designs, while many other new styles developed to make vivid and inventive use of the full range of imported dyed cotton that became available.
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|Click on the image to go to our gallery of Francophone West African cloths for sale.|