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African Commemorative Textiles : Glossary of Fabrics

Area Studies Librarian

Emilie Songolo's picture
Emilie Songolo
Contact:
Memorial Library
Room 278F
608-265-4740

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This guide was created by Kirstie Yu. It is managed by Kimberly Rooney and Emilie Songolo. For questions, please contact at emilie.songolo@wisc.edu.

Adinkra

Adinkra also means ‘goodbye’ or ‘farewell’ in Twi the language of the Akan ethnic group of which Asante is a part. It has therefore been the tradition of the Akan especially the Asante to wear cloths decorated with Adinkra symbols on important occasions especially at funerals of family relations and friends. This is to signify their sorrow and to bid farewell to the deceased. Today, the Adinkra cloth is not exclusively worn by the Asante people. It is worn by other ethnic groups in Ghana on a variety of social gatherings and festive occasions.

​Adire

Adire (meaning “tied and died”) is an indigo-dyed cloth that is produced by the Yoruba women of southwestern Nigeria, using a variety of resist dye techniques.  Original Adires were simple tied designs on locally woven hand-spun cotton cloth much like those still produced in Mali. In the early decades of the twentieth century however the new access to large quantities of imported shirting material made possible by the spread of European textile merchants in certain Yoruba towns, notably Abeokuta, enabled women dyers to become both artists and entrepreneurs in a booming new medium. New techniques of resist dyeing were developed, most notably the practice of hand-painting designs on the cloth with a cassava starch paste prior to dyeing; this was known as Adire Eleko.  
 In the 1920s and 30s Adire was a major local craft in the towns of Abeokuta and Ibadan, attracting buyers from all over West Africa but by the end of the decade problems over quality caused by the spread of synthetic indigo and caustic soda and an influx of new less skilled craftsmen, led to a collapse in demand. The more complex and beautiful starch resist designs continued to be produced until the early 1970s. Today, not much good quality Adire is being made in Nigeria and most surviving old pieces have already disappeared into museums and private collections in the USA and Europe. Simplified stenciled designs and some better quality tie & die and stitch-resist designs are still produced but good examples of the older styles are getting harder and harder to find in Nigeria.  Unlike Aso Oke, which Yoruba people often kept as a family heirloom for decades, Adire was an everyday cloth usually worn out and discarded.

African Wax Print

What is commonly known as “African fabric” goes by a multitude of names: Dutch wax print, Real English Wax, Veritable Java Print, Guaranteed Dutch Java, Veritable Dutch Hollandais.
The development of the African print fabric has been referred to as the “result of a long historical process of imitation and mimicry”. How exactly Dutch wax prints became popular in West Africa is debated. What is known for certain is that Dutch wax prints started out as cheap mass-produced imitations of Indonesian batik locally produced in Java. Colonial powers, particularly the Dutch and the English, played heavy roles in industrialising the batik production techniques and popularising the resulting textiles in foreign markets.

​Asafo Flag

Asafo flags, locally called "frankaa", are paraded on festive occasions by men's "military" companies among the Fante people of coastal Ghana. The imagery asserts the wealth and power of the company and challenges its rivals, often through an associated proverb. The flags were made from thin flimsy imported cloth and the effect of being hung outside for days at a time in all weathers and repeated use in parades tends to mean that older pieces are often quite battered with numerous marks, holes and patches. One can think of this damage as "battle scars" testifying to their authenticity.

Aso oke

Aso oke fabric, (pronounced ah-SHAW-okay) is a hand loomed cloth woven by the Yoruba people of southwest Nigeria. Aso-Oke means top cloth in the English language. It is the traditional wear of the Yorubas (the tribe of the southwest people in Nigeria, Africa).  Aso-Oke can often be kept as a family heirloom and passed down through generations.
Aso-Oke  fabric is used to make men's gowns, called Agbada, women's wrappers, called Iro, and men's hats, called Fila.  Aso-Oke is traditionally worn on special occasions, such as chieftancy coronations, festivals, engagement and wedding ceremonies, naming ceremony, funerals and other important events.
Aso oke fabric is often worn with aran, a brown velvet with concentric designs.
There are three main types of traditional Aso-Oke based on their colors: Alaari- a rich red type, Etu- a dark blue type, and Sanyan - could be light brown or a little dark brown
  The original versions of these cloths are now quite rare and are fast becoming antiques.

Bark cloth

Bark cloth is the sacred fabric of the Baganda people who live in the Buganda kingdom in southern Uganda. It is harvested from the inner bark of a Mutaba tree (ficus natalensis) during the wet season. The tree is left unharmed as only a thin layer of bark is cut, and bananas leaves are wrapped around the trunk until the next season in nine months.  The bark of the tree regenerates and can be harvested repeatedly over dozens of years.

The bark is heated with fire or boiling water and stretched to soften it; a 12 inch piece of bark can become a 120 inch piece of bark cloth. Craftsmen then pound the bark for hours with wooden mallets to give it a smooth, fine texture of fabric. The fabric is laid out for three days to dry and during this time it becomes a red-brown color. 
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named bark cloth making one of the oldest crafts of humanity, even preceding the invention of weaving but the art of making barkcloth is slowly disappearing to the modern conveniences of the twenty-first century. 

Barkcloth remains a ceremonial dress code for royalty, chiefs, and heirs during coronations and funerals. Bagandas wear the well-respected fabric in the style of a toga. The Royal families’ bark cloths are dyed black and/or white and worn in a different style to signify their status. 
The durability and texture of bark cloth yields endless opportunities for the fashion industry; it may possibly become a permanent alternative to leather; it is forgiving of dirt and stains, durable like leather and can be colored with plant and vegetable-based dyes.

​Bazin

Bazin, one of the most coveted African fabrics from Mali and other countries such as Burkina Faso, Senegal, but especially admired in Mali to the point of becoming a cultural identity in Mali. The damask comes from different European countries like Germany, Holland etc., but Mali is the leading provider Bazin of all Africa. The damask fabric is cotton which has the distinction of making the color shimmering when stained. Its elegance in the traditionally cotton fabric of choice is used for making tunics, festive creations and contemporary chic. The stiffer it is, the more expensive it is. Bazin Africolor is hand dyed and each fabric created by hand is unique. Malians have the tendency to wear the damask in special occasion such as marriages, naming ceremonies, engagement parties etc.

​Bogolan (mud cloth)

Bamana mud cloth, or bogolanfini, is a handmade Malian cotton fabric traditionally dyed with fermented mud. It is a type of cloth that women hand-paint with mud that is rich in iron, and that they leave stored in a pot for more than a year before using. The cloth traditionally used in bogolanfini productionis woven by men on a narrow strip loom. To begin, they dip the cloth in a solution of water boiled together with the pounded leaf of a type of tree (cengura) to give it an overall yellow color. Using a wooden stick or iron tool, the female artist then paints the mud onto the areas of the cloth that will become the negative space of the resulting design. Finally, she adds caustic soda solution to the unpainted areas to effectively bleach them back to their original white.
Traditionally, and still today, Bamana women would wear bogolanfini during important periods of transition, including marriage, birth, excision, and death. Male hunters would wear it as markers of their group identity. The association bogolanfini has with women’s excision and men’s hunting suggests that it was once a very powerful form of attire.)
It has an important place in traditional Malian culture and has, more recently, become a symbol of Malian cultural identity. The cloth is being exported worldwide for use in fashion, fine art and decoration.

Country cloth

The Country cloth (Kondi-gulei) is a thick, heavy, cloth made by weavers of the Mende tribe of Sierra Leone and Liberia.   Country Cloth is traditionally made from locally grown cotton that is handspun into thread, hand dyed, and hand woven into strips on a tripod loom.  
Traditionally country cloth was used to make clothes.  A piece of cloth with enough strips to achieve the desired width would be partially sewn together on the sides and an opening for the head would be cut and sewn off. The neck and pocket are often embroidered.  
Country cloth was also used as bed covers and/or blankets or given as gifts or as part of a dowry.  It was often presented to newborns by grand parents and relatives, in a similar way that quilts are made and given as baby gifts in the United States.  In contemporary times, country cloth is made into clothes and various other items such as hats, bags, etc.

​Gele

Gele is the Yoruba word for (A woman’s) Head wrap.  In the Igbo culture it is called Ichafu.
It is a large rectangular cloth tied on a woman’s head in a variety of fashions.  The material used to make the gele is usually of a stiff, but flexible, nature e.g. Aso-oke (thickly woven silk), Brocade (cotton) and Damask. These materials come in a wide array of colors, patterns and textures.  The bigger the cloth (and the greater the skill) the more elaborate the look.
Gele tying is an Art form that takes practice, patience and often times a well-toned arm, but once tied, a Gele can make any woman look regal. Every Gele is unique and there is no true formula to achieve the exact look twice. If you take a closer look, you will see that no two Geles (once tied) are alike.

Kaasa/Koso

The woolen blankets kaasa are probably the oldest woven garments used by the Fulbe of the Central Delta of the Niger River in Mali. Among them the kaasa mbunaawa are considered as low-to-average-status blankets commonly used.
As all the other types of kaasa, the kaasa mbunaawa is composed of six strips hand-sewn together, each strip measuring from 25 to 30 cm width and up to 2.5 m length. The strips are woven from local black sheep’s, grey sheep’s wool and white wool dyed with vegetal pigments. The Inland Delta of Mali is the only area in Sub-Saharan Africa where wool is traditionally produced.

The process of making a kaasa landaka is a women’s responsibility. A woman would commission such a blanket for her husband or her son.

​Kanga

Kanga (sometimes known as khanga or leso) is a colorful popular garment worn by women and occasionally by men throughout Eastern Africa. It is a piece of printed cotton fabric, often with a border along all four sides (called pindo in Swahili), a central part (mji) which differs in design from the borders and the writing (jina or ujumbe). The mji and jina are two features that usually give the kanga its local name, popularity and meaning. Kangas are usually rectangular in shape, each with their own ‘name’ or slogan written in the Kiswahili language in the same position in every design printed in a variety of designs and colors. Kangas are artifacts of the Swahili culture and as such are designed with a lot of care to appeal to its users. Kangas are sold in matching pairs- called “doti” and are mainly worn by women as a shawl or headdress. Men are allowed only to use kangas inside the house. 

Early designs of kangas had a border and a pattern of black and white spots on a dark background. The buyers thus began calling these early designs “KANGA” after the noisy, sociable guinea-fowl that has elegant black and white dotted colors. It is important to note that kanga designs have evolved over the years, from simple dotted black and white shapes to more elaborate patterns with varying motif and color made from a variety of fabrics.

​Kente cloth

The overall aesthetic of this Ewe Kente identifies it as coming from the Anlo-Ewe area, and its wear and color palette date it to at least as early as the mid-twentieth century, though the warp and weft design motifs are earlier. Ewe Kente differs from the Ashanti version in the materials used, the overall aesthetic, and meanings of the designs. For centuries, cotton has been the primary material for Ewe Kente, and it is only recently that the Ewe have begun adopting the Ashanti tradition of using silk and rayon. Unlike the more rigid, abstract, and evenly distributed weft designs of Ashanti Kente, certain styles of Ewe Kente exhibit a freer and more random aesthetic with a greater degree of asymmetry. The narrative of Ewe Kente is less about the qualities and history of leadership, as is typical of Ashanti Kente and more about the human experience in general, or the nature of the designs themselves. Like Ashanti Kente, the Ewe’s version has two sets of names, one for the individual figurative designs, and the other for the background, or warp. The name for the latter, in this case, is novi atideke. Novi means “a two heddle design” and the word atideke a “step forward,” suggesting the forward-moving progress one makes using the two-heddle system.

Kitenge

The Kitenge (vitenge in plural) is another kind of textile, but of a thicker quality, and it has usually an edging only a long side or not at all. It is printed using rotary spinning machines. Even kitenge is sold in lengths sufficient to cover ones body. Specific patterns are designed for national holidays, jubilees etc. While similar textiles as the kitenge can be found all around Africa, the kanga is specific for East Africa and it has a fascinating history.

Kuba

Kuba textiles have been woven since the 16th Century by the Kuba of Kongo, today’s DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). The Kuba live in the Kasai region of the DRC.Children, men and women of the same clan participate in making these textiles. 

The process includes the collection and preparation of the raffia fibers for weaving and embroidery, weaving the basic cloth unit, dyeing the embroidery fibers, and embellishing the woven cloth with embroidery, applique, patchwork and dye. The weavers use a coarse filament stripped from the fronds of the raffia palm tree. Raffia trees are extensively grown in the DRC. Raffia is the material of spiritual efficacy, social relationships, and artistic expression in Central Africa.

Vivid geometric motifs, sacred signs, symbols and insignia are woven into various types of clothing pieces such as wrappers (or skirts), overskirts, panels, belts, headdresses, men’s clothes, caps, tunics, mats, baskets, and boxes in various colors.

These weavings were reserved for court rituals and ceremonial occasions. The Kuba believe that they would not be recognized by their clan ancestors in the afterlife unless they were appropriately dressed in high quality raffia textiles.

European and other western artists such as Matisse have been collecting and imitated the Kuba design since the 16th Century. Today, one may find factory-produced imitations of Kuba design used in luxury, designer and mass-market interior design and fashion without recognition of the origin of the design.

Ndop

Frequently referred to as the “Bamenda Gown”, this traditional regalia hails from the Grass field people in theWestern and Northwestern regions of Cameroon (Bamenda, Bamileke and Bamum). The cloth is hand embellished with numerous colors of wool fiber. Though designs can vary, the general patterns embroidered on the fabric include the gong; one of the most popular musical instruments in the North-West region of Cameroon, a sign of love as a mark of peace, mutual sympathy and respect in the community, and a star; often at the center of the cloth to acknowledge the predominance of a higher power to humans.

The Bamum version of this cloth is woven in cotton, raffia filaments, or in beaten tree bark. Strips of indigenous cotton weave in resist dyeing technique sewn together. The motifs on it are: the moon "mut", the eyes of the leopard "minguo", four heads "kpa tu" (a form of spear), the two-headed snake (symbolizing the double victory of King Mbuembue.) The dominant colors are blue (represented the sky and rain) and red (symbolizing spiritual power. This type of cloth is traditionally reserved for high ranking members of the palace organisation and royalty for spiritual ceremonies.
While the apparel is traditionally worn by the highest political and tribal leaders known as fons (or chiefs), laymen and women from Northwestern Cameroon can be seen wearing this apparel at ceremonial events. It is common for women to wear the regalia with a headscarf and men, with a matching cap of very colorful embroidery. However, the traditional regalia won by the Fons (chiefs) is designed slightly different from that won by ordinary people in that, it is embellished with a symbol of the sun in front and behind. This represents their benevolent authority over the territory of their jurisdiction, with an expectation of generosity as mighty as that of the sun. 

This textile is worn at ceremonial events that call for a display of cultural pride. Consequently, upon wearing this regalia, one is expected to conduct oneself with utmost dignity and self-respect. 

Even though adaptations to this traditional wear can be seen on the runways of fashion empires across the west, the people of northwestern Cameroon have embraced the modernization of the cloth but continue to maintain its fundamental design and core cultural value amidst western influence. Not only is the Ndikong recognized as a national identity but is argued to be one of the most respected fabrics in Africa.