Raw Materials in Sub-Saharan African Weaving

The raw materials used in the production of cloth in Africa include bast fibres, wool, cotton, silk, raffia, and the bark of certain trees. The weaving of bast fibres, produced by allowing the stalks of plants such as jute or flax to decompose in water for a few days, would seem to have been far more widespread in the past than it has been in the twentieth century. Linen woven from bast fibres was the material used in the weaving of ancient Egypt, source of some of the oldest surviving garments in the world. Small fragments of woven bast fibre were excavated with elaborate brass vessels dated to the ninth century AD at Igbo Ukwu in southeastern Nigeria. Although there are some localities elsewhere in Nigeria where bast fibres were woven quite recently, the main area where it survives today, apart of course from contemporary Egyptian linen production, is in the eastern part of Madagascar. Wool is the major fibre used by the women weavers of the Berber peoples of North Africa, as well as by men of Arab origin weaving in the urban workshops of the region. Elsewhere in Africa weaving with animal fibres is quite rare, since most types of sheep in sub-Saharan Africa do not produce wool. Weaving with sheep’s wool is found only among the Fulani weavers of the inland Niger delta in Mali, in parts of Sudan, and in southern Madagascar.

A woollen arkilla kerka blanket used as a prestige hanging and mosquito barrier in a Mali wedding tent. Photo from B. Gardi. Arkilla Kerka (Tampere, 1992).

Cotton has been cultivated across a wide expanse of the Sahel and savanna regions of Africa for more than a thousand years, with some of the earliest evidence for cotton textiles coming from the fifth century AD sites of the kingdom of Meroë in present day Sudan. Seeds are squeezed out of the harvested cotton bolls using an iron roller and a flat stone, the fibres are bowed by plucking a small string bow to loosen them, then spun using a weighted spindle. Cotton was the mainstay of textile production in a huge region of Africa from Senegal to Nigeria, across the continent to Ethiopia. In the twentieth century a variety of colonial efforts to either sponsor the export of cotton or support domestic textile industries have seriously reduced cotton production in many areas of Africa, as has a shift by weavers to the use of factory produced machine-spun cotton and artificial fibres. However in at least some areas such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, and among the Dogon in Mali the regular use hand-spun cotton continues.

Detail of a C19th Nigerian cloth – shows hand spun indigo dyed cotton and magenta silk from the trans-Saharan trade routes.

Silk is not a widely used fibre in Africa weaving. However in areas where it is or was used it often took on considerable significance. A variety of silks were spun and woven in nineteenth century Madagascar, although they have now been largely supplanted by imported fibres. The import of silk into West Africa has a long history. By the eighteenth century there are reports of the unravelling of imported silk cloths by Asante weavers in Ghana to provide the colours needed to develop ‘kente’ for the Asante court. In the nineteenth century large quantities of magenta coloured waste silk from the textile factories of France and Italy was shipped across the Mediterranean to Tripoli, from where it was carried on the long journey by camel across the Sahara to Kano in northern Nigeria. Much of it ended up hundreds of miles further south from Kano with the Yoruba weavers of Oyo and Ilorin. Known to the Yoruba as alaari, magenta silk was the basis for one of the three most prestigeous cloths in the aso oke tradition. A second of the Yoruba prestige cloths, sanyan, was made from a local wild silk. This silk, which loses any lustre in the course of processing it from the web of cocoons, is produced by several varieties of Anaphe moth. Most of the silk is a pale beige colour, although white thread could also be obtained from the inner cocoons of some varieties. The silk was used by Yoruba and Nupe weavers to weave the large robes popularised by the ruling Fulani aristocracy following the Islamic jihad which swept across northern Nigeria at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Wild silk was also dyed with indigo and woven into prestigious women’s wrapper cloths by the Dafing people of Burkina Faso. In the early decades of the twentieth century the importation of European waste silk ended with the decline of the trans-Saharan trade, and imported silks were supplanted by rayon and other synthetic fibres.

Barkcloth, Uganda, early C20th postcards: left – Stripping the bark from a tree. Right- women in barkcloth wrappers.

Bark cloth is not strictly speaking a textile since it is felted, rather like paper, not woven. Bark is stripped in a single piece from the trunk of a suitable tree, moistened with water or steam, and them carefully hammered with a special beater. This is a highly skilled task during which the cloth made be expanded by up to four or five times, producing a thin but even and quite strong cloth. The best known regions for bark cloth production are Zaire, Uganda, Rwanda and Malawi, but the Asante of Ghana also used to manufacture bark cloth until the mid C20th which still has some ritual uses. Today bark cloth is still made in Côte D’Ivoire.

Further Reading:

Burt E.C. “Bark-cloth in East Africa” in Textile History 26(1)
Coquet M. Textiles Africains (1998)
Ene C.J. “Indigenous Silk-weaving in Nigeria” in Nigeria Magazine 81 (1964)
Farris Thompson R. & Bahuchet S. Pygmées (1991)
Gardi,B. Woven Beauty (2009)
Loir H. Le Tissage du Raphia au Congo Belge (1935)
Mckinney,E. & Eicher, J. “Unexpected Luxury: Wild Silk Textile Production among the Yoruba of Nigeria” in Textile; The Journal of Cloth and Culture, 2009.
Monteil C. Le Coton Chez Les Noirs (1927)
Spring C. & Hudson J. Silk in Africa (2002)