In a land as vast and diverse as Africa, it should come as no surprise to learn that traditional African fabric is also diverse and comes in a vast array of materials embellished with a diverse assortment of decorative techniques. In fact, someone knowledgeable of African textiles can easily identify the region of origin just by looking at the cloth in question.
To be most traditional, African fabric is made of cotton, linen, wool, or leather. The plants and animals from which to make these fabrics are native to the continent and have been available for thousands of years as societies developed and clothing styles and designs evolved.
The climate and materials available in any particular spot, as with clothing everywhere, have always influenced African clothing styles. Africa is home to deserts, ocean beaches, majestic rivers, lush rain forests and jungles, savannahs, plains, snow-capped mountains, and almost every sort of terrain in between. The clothing adapted for historic wear in each region is a reflection of the region itself.
In Northern Africa, where the sun is brutal and deserts provide a lot of wind but little shade, African fabric is lightweight. To protect against the harsh elements, people wear loose, flowing garments that provide plenty of protection from the searing sun.
Kente cloth is the African fabric associated with the Ashanti people of Ghana in West Africa. Once reserved for tribal kings during special events, West African men and women from all walks of life today enjoy wearing kente cloth as a celebration of their proud heritage.
Mud cloth from Mali, also in the western part of the continent, is a form of African fabric that is readily recognized around the world. Made by the Bambara people, cotton cloth is intricately crafted and dyed with fermented mud. In fact, the very word, Bambara, means, “earth cloth.”
The indigo plant flourishes in Nigeria, where African fabric is often blue, made so from the dye that can be made from the indigo plant.
Over the centuries, as travelers from around the world came to Africa to explore, settle, and establish trade routes, African clothing styles were influenced by the newcomers and the fabrics from which their clothing was made. African fabric choices today include the very traditional fabrics mentioned here but they also include silks from the Orient and synthetics from the industrial countries. These less traditional African fabrics are used quite often today instead of the more traditional African fabric made throughout the ages.