A Journey through the Textiles of West Africa
At Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum there is currently an exhibition exploring the traditional Style of African textiles which form an essential part of West African culture. Using vibrant woven, printed, dyed and embroidered cloth from Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
Printing by Hand
Printing by hand is less common in West Africa than weaving and dyeing. Adinkra cloth from Ghana is hand-printed with symbols. Adinkra means “farewell” and the cloth is tradionally worn at funerals as a way of expressing sorrow. The cloth is considered prestigious because it is hand-printed.
There are over 50 different Adinkra symbols and new symbols are continually being incorporated. Almost all of the symbols have associated meanings or proverbs. The use of proverbs can demonstrate wisdom and awareness of appropriate standards of behaviour.
Gye Nyame “except God” – Meaning God is all powerful.
Symbols were originally printed on locally woven cloth but since the early 20th century have been printed on imported factory cloth. Stamps are carved from calaash gourd and then dipped in a tar-like substance made from bamboo comb creating parellel lines.
The conventions of wearing Adinkra cloth have become more relaxed. Although traditionally black and red, some younger Ghanaians now wear white adinkra to weddings and other social gatherings.
Factory-made was prints are common in West Africa. While hand-woven and dyed textiles are expensive and can be time consuming to produce, wax print textiles can be produced easily.
Wax printing has its origins in Indonesian batik. In the 19th century Dutch textile manufactures found a way to mechanically reproduce hand-drawn, hand-dyed batik. This involved printing the design in hot resin on both sides of the fabric with engraved copper rollers before dyeing took place. However, the finished cloth varied in quality since the dyes seeped through the cracked dried resin in certain places and created a marbling effect on the fabric.
This effect combined with a slight misalignment of colour and design led to early “Dutch Wax” prints being unpopular with Indonesians. Dutch merchants then tried the cloth in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and it was extremely popular.
The designs in wax printed textiles are diverse. Some are influenced by Indonesian motifs such as plants, birds and insects whilst others reflect modern Africa.
Dyeing is an inexpensive way to decorate plain fabric and can produce irregular designs which are less geometric than those on woven cloth.
The Yorubas are specialist dyers and produce adire cloth which is made into clothing or textiles for the home. Adire developed with the introduction of factory-woven cotton cloth to Nigeria. Its finer surface made it easier to decorate than woven cloth.
To generate pattern, dye is withheld from certain parts of the cloth. Adire can be patterned using different “resists” involving tying with string and seeds, stitching or applying starch or wax before the cloth is dyed. Once the resist is applied, the cloth is dipped gently into the dye. Dipping is repeated until the required depth of colour is obtained. cloth can be beaten with mallets to give the surface a metallic gloss.
The favoured colour for Adire is indigo, a deep blue-black originally obtained naturally, now available synthetically. Amongst the Yoruba, dyeing is a skilled occupation mainly done by women. Girls are now more reluctant to become apprentices because the blue hands which result from being a dyer can suggest they are traditional rather than modern in their outlook.
Gown – Nigera, 1991, Cotton, Lurex – This woven gown is decorated with embroidery which is associated with the spread of Islam in West Africa. Called an Agbada, it is influenced by Middle Eastern dress. Such gowns are worn by wealthy men or those in important positions. The front and back are embroidered and the extent and elaboration of the designs reflect the wearer’s importance. The embroidered stitching is close, giving it a solid appearance. it features the “two knives” pattern.
The most prestigious cloth in West Africa is hand-woven.
Weavers in Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone produce long narrow strips which are then sewn together to make a large piece of cloth. Patterns can be created by alternating colours, weaving designs into the fabric and adding embroidery.
Kente cloth is made up of complex geometric patterns with contrasting borders at each end. Weavers mix strips of different patterns or align similarly patterned strips in different ways to manipulate the overall design. Woven by the Ashanti and Ewe people of southern Ghana, kente were originally reserved for the most important men and women in society.
Aso oke cloth is made up of patterned strips. The strips are taken to a tailor or seamstress to produce an outfit. The cloth can be expensive so is uually kept for special functions such as the installation of an Oba (ruler) or for more frequent events such as naming ceremonies and weddings. woven by the Yoruba of southwest Nigeria, aso oke has kept its prestige and popularity despite the infux of imported fabrics.
Country cloth is woven from locally grown cotton. The simpler types of the country cloth are coarse and can be plain or stripped using naturally dyed threads. Woven in rural areas of Sierra Leone by groups including the Mende people, country cloth can be made into shirts gowns and head wear. In the past possessing such cloth was a sign of wealth and high status.
The choice of what a person wears can express their political, religios, ethnic and national identity.
Textiles can highlight continuity and change in West African society as well as express a person’s values and aspirations.
Although wax prints are perfectly suited for this purpose, cheaper “fancy prints” have increased in popularity. Fancy prints are also factory printed using engraved rollers or printing screens but the design is only applied to one side of the cloth. The speed of production combined with a lower printing cost means manufactures can take more risks with the designs on fancy prints and respond quickly to events in society. Fancy prints are also ideal for having images printed on them. An individual or group can publicise their aims across a wide area by commissioning a cloth to be printed.
The variety of colour and desing offered by factory-printed cloth has meant that it has often replaced traditional forms of West African Clothing.
Wax print has dominated West African textile markets for over a century and is worn by West Africans around the world as casual and formal attire. New designs are always emerging and old ones are re-issued or updated. Once the fabric is purchased, garments can be made to measure by tailor or a seamstress. Some incorporate European styles such as blouses with the addition of elaborate sleeves and shoulders. For those who cannot afford full garments, a single length of fabric can be worn around the body as a wrap.
Since the 1960s wax print has been locally produced in factories across West Africa. Two of the main brands are GTP and ATL although European wax print is considered more prestigious. Vlisco is one of the leading European brands. Their designs draw upon a range of traditional and contemporary sources and feature in fashion shows across West Africa and Europe.
Chinese copies of wax print designs have begun appearing in West Africa and their lower cost makes them appealing to consumers.