The earliest surviving sub-Saharan African textiles are cloth fragments and parchment fragments that date to the ninth century BCE from sites at Igbo Ukwu of the Igbo people of Nigeria. Some twelfth century cloth fragments date from the Tellem caves in Mali. Surviving thirteenth century samples originate from Benin City and Nigeria.
African textiles are a part of African cultural heritage that came to America along with the slave trade. As many slaves were skilled in the weaving, this skill was used as another form of income for the slave owner.
In most of Africa the weavers were men while the women spun the thread. The weavers in many of the countries were part of a caste-like group and sometimes slaves to noble families. In Yoruba compounds were used where master weavers would teach all the boys weaving and all the girls would learn to spin and dye the yarn.
Some examples of African textiles are:
- Aso oke fabric - woven by Yoruba people
- Adire- tie-dye produced by Yoruba people
- Kente cloth - woven by Ashanti and Ewe people
- Barkcloth - produced by the Buganda tribe
- Mudcloth- produced by the Bambara tribe
- Kitenge - produced in Kenya and other regions of East Africa
Weaving has many spiritual and mythical meaning behind it. One, is that from the Dogons who believe that each stage of spinning and weaving thread is a symbolic analogy to human reproduction and resurrection. With this, they believe that the processes of spinning and weaving could only be done in daylight hours. To work at night would be to weave silence and darkness into the cloth. The color of the cloth can also have some spiritual meaning. In one tribe a white cloth used by healing women is thought to be linked to water spirits. Although there are many meanings to the designs on the cloth very few are directly represented on the cloth itself.
Textiles were also used as a form of identity with each tribe having their own unique patterns which also made it easy to spot outsiders. Many different types of patterns were formed in places that specialized in weaving. Kings would request several types of cloth to show their prestige and importance. Kings would even compare themselves by how many robes they had and what they were made out of.
Weaving and the textiles were and still are very important to the African culture. The textiles included both men and women and the cloth they made was unique to their tribe through the patterns and spiritual meanings behind them. the designs also had aztec designs in
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- Christopher Spring, African Textiles, (New York: Crescent) 1989, p. 3