Each of the loom forms and decorative methods introduced on the previous pages have their own separate and complex histories much of which remains to be researched. Very few textiles of any antiquity have been preserved in the unfavourable climactic conditions of most of Africa. As a consequence here we can only touch on some of the more important features of a history of African weaving. The earliest African looms of which any knowledge survives are those recorded in the wall paintings of ancient Egyptian tombs. The fine flax fibres of early Egyptian textiles seem to have been woven on very basic ground looms, possible without using any heddle device at all. Looms depicted in Middle Kingdom tombs of circa 2000 BC show ground looms with a single-heddle operated by two women seated on opposite sides of the warp. However by the 18th Dynasty a second loom type was in use. These were vertically mounted single-heddle looms, either set against a wall or with the top beam fixed to a tree. Scholars suggest that this type of loom, which was operated by men, was introduced to the Egyptians when they were invaded by the Hyksos people in the seventeenth century B.C. The Greek scholar Herodotus described male weavers, apparently still using this type of loom, during his visit to Egypt over a thousand years later. Although numerous fragments of ancient textiles are known from Egypt, the picture for sub-Saharan Africa is far less clear. Spindle whorls and other evidence of weaving have been found at Meroë in the Sudan. Among the oldest textiles known are a red, green, and blue tunic and a shawl, both with what appear to be small figures embroidered on them, recently excavated from a burial site in the Republic of Niger. These cloths which have been dated to the second half of the eighth century AD, are from a region crossed by long distance trade routes and are perhaps a pointer to the importance of trade in the later history of African weaving.

Tellem textile fragment, C15th. National Museum of Mali, Bamako.

Although some scholars have proposed a variety of external sources for the main features of sub-Saharan African weaving technology only the Arabian origin of the East African pit loom is securely established. It seems equally if not more probable that the narrow-strip loom and some form of single-heddle loom were to some degree local inventions. In the case of the single-heddle loom John Picton has hypothesized that the variety of forms found along the Nigeria/Cameroon border and the apparent correspondence between the distribution patterns of the two major variants, namely the ground loom and the upright raffia loom, with the two streams of the Bantu language family point to a possible origin in that area. The antiquity of this loom type appears to be confirmed by the Igbo Ukwu cloth samples fragments dated to the ninth century AD. By a similar logic the area of diverse loom types in Sierra Leone may be a likely candidate for the origins of the narrow strip treadle loom now found throughout most of West Africa. On the other hand both the Inland Niger Delta and the ancient kingdom of Bornu at the edge of Lake Chad are possible locations for trans-Saharan transmission of textile technology and recent linguistic research raises interesting linkages. The oldest cloths associated with this loom are the large number of textile fragments dating back to the eleventh century AD found in burial caves along the Bandiagara cliffs in the area of Mali inhabited today by the Dogon. The great Arab traveller al-Bakri described seeing what would appear to be a narrow-strip loom in operation in the Mauretanian town of Silla in AD 1068. Whatever its origins it is clear that the distribution of the skills of weaving on the narrow-strip loom, along with the tailoring and embroidery of men’s robes, owes a lot to the long distance traders that criss-crossed West Africa dealing in a huge range of goods, both locally produced and imported from across the Sahara. Many of these traders were Muslims, and the demand for appropriate and prestigious Islamic attire certainly helped to promote the spread of textile technologies. In some areas the majority of narrow-strip weavers are themselves Muslims, although this is by no means always the case. It is often suggested that Islam provided the key motivation for spreading weaving technologies throughout West Africa, with conversion to Islam prompting people to wear clothes etc. In my view, although this was a factor, the linkage is more complex and multi-dimensional. The key factor was trade – Islam was not a pre-requisite for being a weaver, but at least by the C19th it was vital for success as a trader in most of the Sahel & Savanna, since it opened up a network of credit and contacts. Textiles were the trade good par excellence in the region, easily transported, high value, long lasting, and in demand everywhere. It was through the importance of cloth in long distance trade that many weavers, such as the Oyo Yoruba, converted to Islam. Interestingly the major non-Muslim trade network, of the Aro-chukwu in south east Nigeria, covered an area where narrow strip weaving is not found.

A Wolof weaver on Goree island, Senegal, 1844. Source French National Archives.

Single heddle vertical raffia looms (until the twentieth century widely used across much of West and Central Africa) and horizontal ground looms (which were at least until recently found in isolated pockets in Sierra Leone, and are still used along the Nigeria Cameroon border) and until the early twentieth century in parts of East Africa, are both clearly of considerable antiquity. Portuguese observers noted their use from the first contacts in the C15th. Highly sophisticated raffia cloths were collected from the Congo in the C16th.

A raffia cloth from Kongo said to have been collected in C17th. British Museum, London.

Further Reading:
Bolland, R. Tellem Textiles (1991)
Candotti,M. “The Hausa Textile Industry: Origins and Development in the Precolonial Period” in A.Haour & B. Rossi eds. Being and Becoming Hausa (2010)
Gardi,B. Woven Beauty (Basel, 2009)
Kriger, C. Cloth in West African History (Alta Mira, 2006)