The fabric of Africa

In 2012, the New York times published an article called “Africa’s fabric is Dutch“. And although there is currently an intense relationship between African consumers and traders, the story of African textiles goes well beyond Vlisco’s double-sided, wax-printed cotton fabric.

This fantastic short article made me realize that the image of the “naked African” is one too common, still today. But Africa’s textile industry was flourishing well before the Dutch arrived, but as it unfortunately happens with much of the continent’s history, its tale has been chopped and simplified.

Mansa Musa's travelsOne prime example of the fantastic reach of African textiles is that of king Musa I of Mali. His is a fascinating story. He actually came to the throne through a practice of appointing a deputy when a king went on pilgrimage or endeavor, and later naming the deputy as heir (his predecessor went to explore the limits of the Atlantic Ocean and never made it back). Musa was a devot Muslim, and he made his pilgrimage in 1325-1326, with a procession that reportedly included 60,000 men – 12,000 of them slaves. Among other things, they carried gold dust and gave it to the poor on their way to Mecca. Accounts mention their rich dresses made from cotton woven with golden threads. They also mention that the sudden gold influx completely ruined local economies.

But Musa is not the only example of how extended the textile industry was in those early years. Bògòlanfini (or bologan), for example, is a traditional Malian fabric dyed with fermented mud. The word means “earthcloth” (Bogo = earth,lan = the way to obtain a result from the earth). The knowledge of weaving and fabric production has existed for centuries throughout the continent, and in many occasions it has been appropriated by European fashion. Bogolan is not the exception, Yves Saint Laurent can tell you that. Still, it is considered a symbol of Malian cultural identity.

From Egyptians and Nubians’ linen looms to Cameroon’s tree bark cloth, through Zimbawe’s colorful quilts, Africa’s textile industry dates back millennia and still inspires.

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