It’s not just wax print that’s having a moment. Designers are successfully incorporating a range of African fabrics and motifs in their covetable collections.
Words Enyinne Owunwanne
Hollandaise wax, also known as African Wax Print, has taken the fashion industry by storm in recent years. From African designers to international glossies, Wax Print has become one of the most commonly associated textiles with Africa. However, the continent is diverse and home to many other intriguingly beautiful textiles that are steeped in tradition.
James Green, a specialist in African Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York says, “There is always a universal quality to geometric design that crosses all cultural and temporal boundaries.” Appreciated by Africans and non-Africans alike, traditional African textiles seen in contemporary fashion and design convey a story of Africa’s rich and diverse history.
Here, we survey six distinct African materials and five designers who successfully combine past with present to adorn the modern day fashionista with culturally rich style.
One of the oldest known West African fabrics is Kente cloth. It has roots steeped in the tradition of weaving which dates as far back as 3000 BC. Kente as we know it, however, was developed in the 17th century by the Ashanti people of Ghana.
Legend has it that two brothers from Bonwire (now the leading Kente weaving centre in the Ashanti region) introduced the practice of weaving to the Ashanti 800 years ago by observing a spider weaving its web. They imitated this practice using raffia fibres before refining their skills to weave local wild cotton.
The word Kente is derived from the Fante word kenten, meaning ‘basket’, referring to the distinct checkered appearance of the cloth which consists of four-inch wide strips sewn together side-by-side.
On average, a man’s Kente cloth is comprised of 24 woven strips measuring twelve feet in length. In contrast, a woman’s Kente cloth averages 14 woven strips measuring six feet in length. Traditionally, men wear Kente cloth draped across their left shoulder, togo-style, while women wrap between one and three pieces of Kente cloth around their waist, with or without a matching blouse. In some cases, elderly women with high social status may wear a large Kente wrapped togo-style, similar to men.
Kente cloth was traditionally woven by men, while women were involved in the yarn dying, sewing together the strips, and marketing the finished material. Both the colours and the patterns of Kente cloth hold significant meaning varying from the female essence of life to social prestige.
Indigo, a deep blue pigment derived from the indigofera plant, is the most common dye used throughout West Africa for creating tie-dye fabrics. In particular, Adire is a type of indigo-dyed cloth produced mainly throughout Southwestern Nigeria. It comes in several distinct resist dye forms.
Adire oniko, which means “tied resist” in Yoruba, is known to be the oldest of the Adire method of tie-dying. Areas of the fabric are tied together with thread to produce simple decorative designs, which differ based on how the material is tied. Originally, raffia was used to tie this material before it was dyed.
Adire alabare refers to “stitch resist” in Yoruba. To create this variation, Yoruba women fold and pleat the cloth before stitching in the resist formation. Often times the thread is cut out in order to create various patterns, which resemble the backbone of a fish.
Adire eleko involves hand-painting designs onto the cloth using paste from the cooked root of a cassava plant prior to the dying process. For scalability purposes, the fabric is now stenciled using metal sheets. These designs are typically geometric and inspired by nature, including plants and animals.
Kanga, which means ‘guinea fowl’ in Kiswahili, is a type of machine-printed cloth originating in Zanzibar. The early technique of printing Kangas was likely introduced to East Africa by the Oman Arabs from the Orient who came to Zanzibar. There’s no evidence that Kangas were ever printed by hand, so it is assumed that they have always been machine-printed.
Kangas are characterised by their wide printed border called ‘pindo’, a central motif which differs from the border called ‘mji’, and a message along the length of the mji called ‘jina’. The message is typically in Swahili, however countries which produce their own Kangas “” such as Madagascar, Zambia, and Malawi – include messages in their native tongue.
Characteristically, Kanga messages are cheeky proverbs conveying love, caution, warning, reassurance, or simply an act of self-expression. For example, “Usilaumu sisimizi sukari haimalizi” means “Don’t blame an ant. He will never finish the sugar”. In other words, don’t make lame excuses.
Kitenge, similar to Kanga, is a popular printed material worn throughout Africa. Commonly referred to as Java, traditionally the printing was done by a batik technique.
Kitenges serve as inexpensive practical piece of clothing, commonly used as a baby sling, head scarf, or womens’ wrapper. The variety of colours, patterns and political slogans are steeped in meaning. For the purposes of scaling and production, Kitenge is now machine-printed through an engraved roller process.
Most sub-Saharan Africans at some point in history wore clothing made from bark cloth. In some countries, this practice still exists today. Uganda produces some of the best bark cloth, made from a species of fig tree called mutuba. There are other trees that produce bark fibre of varying texture, quality, and colour.
Once stripped from the tree, bark cloth is beaten, then dried, and typically resembles a light-brown colour before changing colours in the sun to a rich terra-cotta. Inherent to all bark producing trees, the bark can be stripped away from the tree once a year and will still re-grow.
At one point in the 19th century, South Africa was the largest market for beads in the world. Materials such as seeds, bones, and ostrich shells were used to form the beads and string utilised in the beadwork. The goods made from these beadworks were typically reserved for distinguished Xhosa women, royalty, or for men as gestures of love from a woman. Beadwork was also used as dowry because of their high worth.
By the mid-20th century, beadwork almost ceased to exist because of the high cost and impending scarcity of the materials used. So at that time, synthetic fibers and cottons were introduced as a means of making trade more commercial.
Modern day Xhosa beadwork is made using glass beads of varying colours. Colour and pattern bear significant relevance. White symbolises purity, yellow symbolises fertility, green is a symbol of new life and red represents loyalty. Colours are also closely associated to age. Teenagers and young adults wear shades of orange and green, while adults (over 40) typically wear pink and blue beads. Beads also provided insight into the marital status, social class and spiritual state of tribe members.
Enyinne Owunwanne is Founder and Chief Curator of Heritage1960, an online retail destination for discovering global African fashion and design.
5 Designers Who Connect Tradition to Catwalk
Loza Maleohmbo is a New York City based womenswear brand, eponymously spearheaded by the Brazilian-born, Ivory Coast raised designer. Specialising in combining traditional Kente Cloth with Ankara Wax Print, Loza Maleohmbo is “inspired by multiculturalism and the eclectic result behind mixing tradition and modernity.”
Maki Oh, helmed by Nigerian designer Amaka Osakwe, has perfected the craft of subtly incorporating naturally dyed Adire motifs season-after-season. “Aroused by a strong sense of identity and African culture, (Maki Oh) creates alluring conversational pieces that fuse traditional techniques with detailed construction.”
Maxhosa by Ludoma is a South African based knitwear designer who incorporates traditional motifs from Xhosa beadworks into his men’s collection. Ludoma “designed (this) range of men’s knitwear for amakrwala in order to introduce traditional Xhosa aesthetics into their attire”.
Chichia London, created by designer Christine Mhando, combines printed East African textiles including Kangas and Kitengas to produce a contemporary Womenswear range ethically manufactured in Tanzania. Chichia London aims to “bring new life to everyday basics”.
Buyu by Jamhuri Wear is a luxury travel accessory collection. The main material is hand-woven from Baobab tree fibres. “Finding a way to use this traditional weaving process to create another avenue for sustainable income for women and their families is a primary goal for us.”