Friday, May 25, 2012

Of African Fabrics & Fashion : Part 3

I have discussed about the origins of dutch wax prints in a previous post, but many different fabrics shape the face of African textile. Here is a brief presentation of the most notable ones.

Mud cloth

Wilsdom African Design

Mud cloth, also called Bogolan and Bogolanfini, is a typical Malian textile mainly produces by the Bambara people. It is traditionally dyed with fermented mud and is considered a symbol of Malian culture. It was once worn by warriors.

A Wikipedia article on mud cloth describes well the dyeing process:

"The dyeing [...] begins with a step invisible in the finished product: The cloth is soaked in a dye bath made from mashed and boiled, or soaked, leaves of the n'gallama tree. Now yellow, the cloth is sun-dried and then painted with designs using a piece of metal or wood. The paint, carefully and repeatedly applied to outline the intricate motifs, is a special mud, collected from riverbeds and fermented for up to a year in a clay jar. Thanks to a chemical reaction between the mud and the dyed cloth, the brown color remains after the mud is washed off. Finally, the yellow n'gallama dye is removed from the unpainted parts of the cloth by applying soap or bleach rendering them white" - Wikipedia.

Mud cloth prints are well established in the various levels of the fashion industry as a recurrent pattern for summer collections and are often simply referred as "tribal".  I think they have been beautifully represented by Sass & Bide or MaxMara collections below. 

Sass & Bide FW 2011
I really like the pairing of the top above with the black and red statement necklace.

MarMara SS 2010
I can definitely picture myself wearing such a scarf with a mud cloth pattern (picture below) next winter. It is simple, but raw and it would work perfectly with my dark winter wardrobe. I wish I could travel to Mali to get an authentic one...


Kente cloth
A Kente patchwork. ( Source)

Kente cloth is made of interwoven silk and cotton cloth strips. It takes its origin among the Ashanti people living in today's Ghana and was developed mostly in the 17th century. It was only reserved for royals and only used for limited social and religious functions. Up to this day, it is given as a present for important celebrations such as birth or marriages, but it is also widely worn by the general population on a daily basis. African Americans are wearing garments made from this fabric in their Kwanzaa celebrations.

"Kente is used not only for its beauty but also for its symbolic significance. Each cloth has a name and a meaning; and each of the numerous patterns and motifs has a name and a meaning. Names and meanings are derived from historical events, individual achievements, proverbs, philosophical concepts, oral literature, moral values, social code of conduct of conduct, human behavior and certain attributes of plant and animal life." (Source)

A Kente jacket. Unknown source.

I am not personally a fan of the fabric despite its noble origins. That heavy mix of different types of stripes is very confusing to me and I don't think that blue, green and orange, colors often present in the  same kente pattern, complement each other very well. However if used with moderation, the pattern can add a kick to an outfit. 

An effective used of kente. Proprpostur.

 Kuba cloth

Senegal Soul

Kuba cloth comes from the Kuba people living in the current Democratic Republic of Congo. Its production is appointed to both men and women. Men are responsible for growing, tending, harvesting and weaving the cloth which is made from raffia tree and women are responsible for preparing it for decoration, for treating it with plant dyes and for making the cut pile embroidered panels. Some of the decorative techniques added by both men and women over centuries are applique and reverse applique, dyeing, tie-dyeing and resisted-dyeing, certain types of embroidery as well as patchwork. The Kuba’s first contemporary use of the cloth is at funerals, especially for wealthy elders. The traditional techniques used to create the cloth have survived because of these funerals, giving us the possibility to continue to enjoy the astonishing creative of the Kuba.

"There are several different sub groups of the Kuba people. Each group has different and unique ways to make the fabric. Some make it thicker, longer, shorter, or with different patches. Each patch is symbolic and many times a piece has many different meanings. When Kuba cloth originated there were probably no patches used, but as the cloth is brittle it is quite likely that the patches were used to repair the frequent tears. Later each patch developed a meaning, many patterns are uniquely arranged to tell a story." (Source)

The Kasai velvet, a particular type of Kuba cloth, is created by a combination of embroidery and a cut pile technique. The fibers are held together by the tightness of the weave of the base cloth without being tied. The weaving is made without planning thus creating often a change of pattern on a single clothe, which adds uniqueness to each piece created. It can take up to two years to create a piece like those seen below.
Kasai velvet close up view. (Source)

The Kuba cloth has made its way into modern mainstream interior design. Cut pile clothes are very sturdy and versatile and can be used as decorative pillow cases, rugs or tapestry.

Kuba cloth pillows. (Source)

Kuba cloth pillows integrated in living room decoration (Source)

This post closes my excursion into African textiles. Several books are available for detailed explanations on the origins, the making and the use of these fabrics. A friend recommended me John Gillow's African Textile saying that it is definitely a reference on the subject for those wanting to have an in dept view of it. It is available on


  1. Hello. Thanks for this post. Interesting content. And that's the only what matters.
    If I may hope, you could make your text column more narrow. It's a lot easier to read it that way. 500-600px wide would be better.
    I'm looking forward your posts. Like your attitude and the skeletons : )

    1. Hello! Thank you very much for your comment! I am glad you like this post. It is one of my favorite so far. I reduced the text column to 750 px. Reducing it any further was breaking the architecture of the blog. I hope it helps though!

    2. Hello! I'm glad you made the change. It's a lot better this way. Thank you. Your eye kind of looses the beginning of the next line if it is too long. And makes reading tiring. I'm joining to your followers. Have a nice day.