African Textile

No one knows who made the first African textile, or when, but the oldest cloth fragments found on the continent date back thousands of years.

Some of the tombs of ancient Egyptian pharaohs contain remnants of the African textile materials the mummified remains were wrapped in and this cloth dates back almost five thousand years. Without the mummification process to preserve it, however, very few ancient fabric remnants have survived the ages.

In sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps the earliest known African textile fragments date back to the 9th century BCE, or almost three thousand years. These cloth fragments were found at archaeological sites in Nigeria, at Igbo Ukuu.

In the Tellem caves in Mali, African textile fragments date back to the 12th century. The Tellem built cliffside dwellings along the Bandiagara Escarpment, where they lived until the Dogon eventually took over the area in the 14th century. The Tellem were small, red-skinned pygmies who carved out settlements directly into the face of the escarpment cliffs. Many of these dwellings are still standing today and the Dogon, still occupying the area, even use some of the Tellem-built granaries carved out of rock so long ago.

Benin City, a bustling metropolis housing more than a million residents today, sits near the Nigerian coast. It was founded in the 10th century as the capital of the Kingdom Benin, part of the empire of Oba of Benin. Although no traces of the original city itself remain today, there are African textile samples dating from the 13th century that were found before the ancient city was replaced with the modern one of today.

Each age and each culture certainly approached the making of and the use of African textile materials differently although there are some similarities that unite the craft. In time-honored tradition, women traditionally spun and dyed the threads from which the men would weave the cloth itself. In some cultures, these textile makers were part of a caste system. In others, they were slaves owned by noble families. In others, they were simply highly skilled men and women who passed along their African textile legacy from one generation to the next.