One of the chief pointers of an African, is their traditional attires. African fabrics are one of the most common identifiers of Africans all over the world and that’s why this article is re-iterating the most popular African textile fabrics, which you may be seeing around but not knowing their names.
African Textile fabrics are more than just the fabric that make up African clothes. The colors, patterns, and materials often tell stories about the African culture and history. One of the popular ways Africans have defined and identified themselves is through textiles/fabrics, as well as using them as a form of expression and a medium of communication in addition to personal adornment.
The African Traditional history also plays an important role in African textile fabrics. Although most today’s African textiles often marry tradition and contemporary influences to inform artistic expression, giving social, economic and religious insight into Africa’s many regions and communities, the most popular African textiles listed in this article are deeply rooted in African history and culture.
10 most popular African textile fabrics
African textile fabrics and outfits made from them have remained in hot demand all over the world, especially in the Americas. Over the decades, putting on an African fabric comes with a sense of pride especially amongst the African diaspora. Here are 10 of the most popular African textile fabrics in no particular order, that are used in making some of the best African outfits.
Kanga also called ‘Leso’ in Kenya, is one of the most popular African textile fabrics from East Africa. This fabric is a rectangular shaped, 100% cotton, printed cloth with a brightly colored decorative border around the outside, which also includes a Swahili proverb. The fabric is named after the Swahili word for the spotted black and white guinea fowl.
This beautiful piece of fabric is extremely popular in the Western world due to the words of wisdom, love, blessings, and friendship printed usually on them. And as a result of that, many fashion houses allow customers to personalize their dress with the words they would like to get printed on their fabric. Although this fabric similar to Kitenge, it is however, much lighter as the threads are thinner.
Today, there are a large number of different Kanga designs available to purchase in the markets of East Africa. In the 1960s factories were set up in Kenya and Tanzania to produce them. Large, industrial rotary screen-printing machines are now used to produce large quantities in bulk.
The Kente cloth comes from a textile practice that originated in the West African country Ghana centuries ago. This is one of the most popular African textile fabrics that has come to symbolize cultural affiliations from West Africa to several nations across the diaspora.
Talking about the origin of the Kente cloth, legend has it that a spider spinning a complex web inspired the earliest kente techniques and designs.
Weaving the kente cloth is a cultural tradition of the Asante (also known as Ashanti) people, and these fabrics were originally used exclusively to dress kings and their court members.
Each block, pattern, and color of the Kente cloth has a distinct name and meaning, and the cloth often includes adinkra symbols, which represent concepts or sayings.
For example, an often used kente pattern is, in Twi, Woforo dua pa a na yepia wo. It means “when you climb a good tree you are given a push;” put another way, when one takes up a worthy cause, one will be supported by their community.
Shweshwe, is one of the most popular African textile fabrics from South Africa. This fabric is also known as isishweshwe and shoeshoe, and it is a cotton fabric that comes in a variety of colors and intricate print designs. This fabric was originally dyed indigo, which is why its formal name is ‘Indigo-dyed discharge printed fabric’.
Shweshe is printed on cotton grown in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, and it’s a trademarked fabric manufactured by Da Gama Textiles, which are the only manufacturers in the world who make the authentic shweshwe.
There are no South African textile that tell a better story than the Shweshwe. Ironically, but not surprisingly however, this distinctly-African fabric originates from Europe.
The printed indigo fabric first made its way into Africa in the 1840s when French missionaries presented it to King Moshoeshoe, the then king of Lesotho. The king popularized the fabric and it is from him that the fabric gets its name — shweshwe or Shoeshoe.
4. Akwaete/ Akwete
One of the most popular African textile fabrics, is the sophisticated Akwete Cloth/Fabric. This fabric is not usually seen or available for purchase in the open markets, because the authentic fabric is only usually custom made by the weavers.
The Akwete cloth is a hand-woven fabric from the Akwete area, near Aba in Abia State in the south eastern part of Nigeria. This fabric weaving tradition is considered to be as old as the Igbo nation. Originally known as ‘Akwa Miri’, which translates to ‘cloth of the water’, its purpose stretches across the board. From everyday use to occasions and even worn by masquerades. The Akwete fabric is a traditional fabric of the igbo people of West Africa.
According to the designer’s studio, Legend has it that a woman named Dada Nwakata pioneered the intricate woven designs of Akwete seen today. Although the weaving tradition existed long before European contact between the 14th and 16th century, Portuguese traders inspired the new design. Nwakata unravelled and studied the textiles these traders brought. Dada then added some creative innovation to the design to create the Akwete known today. It is said that she put a spell on her weaving loom to protect her elaborate designs. And it was only on her passing did her close friend, the only person she allowed to witness her weaving, share the weaving process.
Akwete weavers claim that there are over a hundred motifs of the fabric in existence. It’s believed that the designs are revealed to the weavers by the gods. Thus, each weaver has an unwritten copyright for their design which no other artist is permitted to copy or steal. The motifs are named after their appearance and often play a role in social status. Some designs are reserved for royalty such as the tortoise motif called ‘Ikaki’. With slow and deliberate movements, the tortoise is considered to have king-like qualities. If a non-royal wore this design they would be punished. Then there is also the ‘Ebe’ design which is considered a protective talismans ideal for pregnant women and warriors.
Akwete popularity grew in the region and beyond due to palm oil trade. In the 19th century, Abia State was a centre of the palm oil and palm kernel trade. The Igbo people began to trade the fabric for goods from international traders and the Sahara, as well as, other regions of present day Nigeria. This, along with the cloths vibrant colours and creative designs, helped spread the cloth’s fame. Making the Akwete one of Nigeria’s most famous textiles.
5. Aso Oke
Just like the Akwete fabric, Aso-Oke is one of the most popular African textile fabrics that is a hand woven fabric. The name Aso Oke is the short version of the more formal Aso Ilu Oke which roughly translates to ‘clothes from the up-country’. It is the traditional wear of the Yoruba tribe who originate from the south-west of Nigeria. Aso-oke fabric often worn as a celebration cloth on special occasions and important events. This special hand-woven cloth has over centuries become somewhat of the style marker of the Yoruba tribe. It was said to have been created in Yorubaland around the 15th century and since then spread around the land and its environs.
The method of making aso-oke is painstaking. The threads used to weave the material is made out of cotton. However, the entire process of creating the Aso-Oke fabric is a beautiful, with the artisans who have spent long perfecting their craft make it so effortlessly is heart-warming. Watching plain cotton transform into the perfectly woven threads used for Aso oke is testament to the craftsmanship we are capable of in Africa.
Despite being a traditional material, Aso-oke is making a very modern comeback. The new generations of creatives and designers are finding ways to marry the rich cultural history of Aso-oke with modern silhouettes.
The ankara fabric is a wax-printed cotton textile made with persevering patterns with mostly symbolic designs. It dates back to the early colonial era. This fabric is one of the most popular African textile fabrics.
The ankara fabric, is one of the most versatile and popular fabric used in making different African styled outfits for all occasions. This fabric been a long-lasting favorite amongst African fashion enthusiasts all over world. The popularity of this fabric and the outfits made from it, is ever increasing—with the fashionistas choosing to use ankara in almost every attire.
From the latest trends to the traditional designs, the Ankara fabric is a wardrobe essential that will never go out of style.
Outfits made with Ankara come in a variety of shapes, colors, and patterns, but when it comes to the fabric, you have to choose between cotton or silk. Some outfits also incorporate lace or embroidery, which adds a nice touch of style and elegance.
The Bogolan fabric, or bogolanfini, is also known as the mud cloth because it’s traditionally dyed with fermented mud. This cloth is one of the most popular African textile fabrics that is one of the milestones of Malian culture. The mud cloth is exported throughout the world for fashion, art, as well as decorative purposes.
In Malian culture, the bogolan fabric is used by hunters for camouflage and protection, while Malian women wear it after childbirth, because it is believed the fabric has healing and protective powers. The patterns on the bogolan fabrics have deep meanings referring to mythological concepts, historical events and crocodiles.
Barkcloth, or bark cloth, is a versatile painted cloth, and one of the most popular African textile fabrics from Uganda. This fabric comes mainly from moraceae trees. The soaked strips of fibrous inner bark from these trees are beaten into sheets and finished in various items.
These days, barkcloth fabric is a thick, soft and textured fabric with a rough surface resembling that of tree bark. The fabric is made of woven cotton fabric and used mainly in home furnishings such as curtains, slipcovers and drapery.
The Kitenge fabric is one of the most popular African textile fabrics, which is produced in Kenya and other East African regions, kitenge also known as chitenge is often worn by women. It is used as a baby sling, over the head as a headscarf or around the waist and chest, being a resistant, thick cloth.
Kitenge is quite popular in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Sudan and known as chitenge in Zambia and Namibia, where even men wear it around their waist on hot days. This fabric has a similar look to the Ankara fabric, because it is often decorated with different patterns, colors and even slogans. Depending on the region, the fabrics can be used for dresses, decorative pieces at dinner tables, as wrap over bathing suits or hung up on the wall as decorations.
The Kikoy is a one of the most popular African fabrics that is customary to the Kenyan people as well as the Ugandan people. This fabric belongs to the sarong family of fabrics.
The Kikoy is a woven cloth made of cotton, and is hand-knotted after dyeing to give it borders and patterns. This fabric is made using very bright colors.
This fabric is usually worn by both men and women, and is usually wrapped on the waist or hips, especially during hot weather. Women also wear kikoy by wrapping from their chest down.