Africa Fashion Guide
A social enterprise promoting sustainability within Africa's fashion and textile industry.


August 15th, 2012

The Art of Weaving in West Africa, an Endangered Tradition

At Africa Fashion Guide we recently invited our AFG Consultant Kibamba Nimon to write a guest feature about an area that not only she is passionate about but one that myself, Jacqueline Shaw is obsessed about when it comes to African textiles and that would be African woven cloth.

See what Kibamba has to reveal about this craft and its future potential versus its possible future extinction.


Weaving is still an artisanal activity very alive and widespread in all Africa. It is practiced preferably in dry season, in the open air or under an awning. The discovery of fabric remains in the cliffs of Bandiagara, in Mali, dating from the 11th century, shows the extremely old character of this trade. Although the introduction of the weaving loom is prior to the 11th century, the expansion of the trade was supported by Islam which imposes that one covers the body with clothing. As from the 15th century, the Portuguese, followed by other Europeans, also contributed to develop the weaving of cotton yarns by the installation, particularly in Cape Verde Islands, of large farms of cotton and indigo, supplying the weaving workshops of the Atlantic coast. (1)

In most of West African countries where this trade is practiced, there exist several resemblances in the mode of production: use of the horizontal loom, weaving of cotton yarn by bands, cotton spinning made by women, and weaving carried out by men. Although various production techniques are used, the woven cloth, for most people in this region, not only plays an important economic role but carries also a symbolic message. In fact, “In Africa, cloth is used to commemorate important events, people or political struggles that in other parts of the world might be recorded in writing, or marked by a plaque or monument” (Duncan Clarke, 2012) (2)

kente cloth TSA

For the Mandjak (3), people of Guinea Bissau and Senegal, the loincloth is a talismanic fabric hand-woven to last an entire life:

“It is present from the moment of impregnation; as a “fertility agent” it is used as a bed sheet. It is used to receive the new born, and “is given the responsibility” of the first breath. At the baptism, it carries the breath of the Imam who names the child. Folded at the bottom of the cradle, it protects the child from sudden death. Used to carry the child on the back, it acts as a shield against mystical aggressions. And finally, in the last moments of life the loincloth is used as a shroud” (Maï Diop). (4)

For Asante and Ewe people (Ghana and Togo), this luxurious fabric, is an attribute of wealth and social status. It is worn for special occasions like festivals, religious celebrations and to mark special events in the life of an individual. Made particularly for the dignitaries, “the cloth, worn as a voluminous toga-like garment, is draped majestically around the body with one loose end brought up over the left shoulder” (5). However, it is important to note that, initially the Ewe weavers did not produce the cloth solely for royalty as “individual patrons were unrestricted in their ability to order cloth that reflected their own taste and financial means. Over time these neighboring traditions gradually converged”. (6)The Ewe weavers adopted Asante’s designs as much as the exclusive production for dignitaries.

However this know-how which continued more or less until nowadays is a threatened Heritage. Among the factors with which the weavers compose, let us note the decline in their income since the devaluation of the CFA Franc in 1994, the increase of cotton prices, the exodus of the apprentices towards other industries, the competition of the printed cloth and semi-industrial production.

kentecloth NMAFA

Among the solutions one can think of, the first to be set up in my opinion should be the feminization of this trade. For several reasons, weaving has for a long time remained an exclusive domain for men. By allowing more women to access this trade, it should ensure the transmission of the know-how therefore its conservation.

The second solution would be to introduce the use of raw materials other than cotton to protect the trade from the volatility of cotton prices on global market. My preference would be the use of raw materials which are cultivated on the continent to keep the costs low.

The third solution is to innovate to meet the needs of today’s customers. Innovation can be done through the development of new raw materials and their fusion to the existing one, and the fusion of trades particularly weaving and design. This would make it possible to diversify the offer and make the products more appealing to local consumers.

“The new luxury market demands for long lasting and sustainable products. These products could be created through reinventing traditional crafts, researching on alternative materials and using new technologies and local resources.” – (High Fashion Low Countries project) (7)

To sum it up, I would put it this way: the trade needs to reinvent and to renew itself to be maintained!

Author: Kibamba Nimon

AFG Consultant 

1 Musée du tapis et les arts textiles de Clermont-Ferrand-Site Bargoin « Indigo, les routes de l’Afrique bleue » Edisud 2006

2 Duncan Clarke, “New Book: African Textiles Today by Chris Spring”

3 Tess,

4 Idem

5 Alisa LaGamma and Christine Giuntini, « the Essential Art of African Textiles, Design Without End » The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2008)

6 Idem

7 High Fashion Low Countries project

To sum it up, I would put it this way: the trade needs to reinvent and to renew itself to be maintained!



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