Very often, Africans are depicted on old pictures as naked people, walking around without any clothing. This seems to be quite at odds with the fact that the Dutch textile company VLISCO has been installed in Africa, more precisely in Togo, since 1846. So how could pictures from the 1800s and early 1900s only show naked Africans? The BBC recently ran a story on VLISCO and African textile tradition actually being European. The New York Times claimed that Africa’s fabric was entirely Dutch. I find this quite appalling, and I call this a falsification of history.
So what is the history of African fabric? Is there an African history of textile?
Today, one can find a full tradition of textile flourishing throughout Africa. The Bogolan or ‘mud cloth’ is hand-woven fabric hailing from Mali. Kente cloth, is Ghana’s national fabric, with the most expensive ones made with golden threads for kings only (in the olden days). It is said that the British explorers were amazed by the beauty of the Ashanti king’s attire. Cameroon has a long history of cloth made from the bark of trees, with some fabric particularly made from the obom. Fibers from the raffia are still commonly used to make bags, and clothing. Moreover, in West Cameroon, Kings are dressed with finely woven clothing made by the best weavers of the kingdom embellished with beads. The Pygmies use bark cloth made from tropical fig trees, while people from Chad and the Central African Republic weave cotton strips on horizontal looms; they use a variety of natural dyes.
The Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, use raffia and make some of the most beautiful hand-woven blankets, clothing, and sculptures. The Ndebele of South Africa and Zimbabwe have a rich tradition of gorgeous colorful quilts and blankets entirely hand-made. Many would envy the elegance, color, and presentation of well-dressed Ndebele women.