Improving African Futures Using Lessons from the Past

Making Things from Fibers

"Mu kre kee nga chiin? O lelԑԑlԑ na o tolԑԑlԑ pre titi na yonyi tin mu chin."

"Did you know? Our grandmothers and grandfathers made their own cloth."

Spinning cotton thread, Gbao, 1982

British colonial officers who visited Banda early in the 20th century observed that “every woman is a spinner and every man a weaver.” The pattern they described spoke to the importance of locally made cloth in social life. Local cloth was made by weaving narrow strips from threads spun from cotton and occasionally other fibers. The narrow strips were sewn together to form larger cloths. Gifts of these cloths helped to create social ties, for example, when cloth was given as a gift from a man to his new wife. Strip-woven cloth was a valued possession and an important way through which people conveyed social well-being.

One reason that British officers took note of local cloth production was that they wanted West Africans to buy British-made cloth. Early in the colonial period West Africans found British cloth to be inferior in terms of weight and durability. As scholars have described, European textile manufacturers had to make many adjustments to the quality and design of their fabrics in order to market them successfully in West Africa. However, over the second half of the 20th century, industrially produced cloth and clothing became more widely available and began to undermine local cloth production.

Making Cloth

Local cloth was sometimes made from cotton grown in the area and sometimes from cotton obtained through trade. Women made thread from raw cotton using wooden spindles which were weighted at one end with a fired-clay spindle whorl. The weight helped the spindle to spin evenly as the woman guided the fiber onto the spindle. As it spun, the skilled spinner would pull and thin the fiber to create an even thread. Once enough thread had been spun, some of the white thread might be given to someone skilled in indigo dying, after which the white and blue threads were woven into cloth strips several inches wide on narrow looms by men.

Painting a spindle whorl, Kokua, 1994

Looms were made from wood and operated by a man who used his hands and feet to manipulate the loom and thread. Foot peddles connected to a heddle allowed the weaver to raise and separate warp (vertical) threads before passing a weft (horizontal) thread through the opening created by the heddle. A weaver might use his hands or sometimes a shuttle or bobbin to pass the weft thread through the open warp threads. He used a beater to press weft threads close to one another before lowering heddle to separate warp threads for the next line of thread. Intricate patterns could be created by alternating the color of warp and weft threads, and even more elaborate patterns could be made by adding a second heddle to the loom. Once completed, individual strips of cloth were sewn together to form larger cloths.

Ancient Cloth-Making

Strip weaving is an ancient art in West Africa. Archaeologists working in dry caves high in the Bandiagara Escarpment in north central Mali have recovered well-preserved strip-woven cloth dating to as early as the 11th century CE. Some of the cloth was used to make sewn tunics and caps, while other cloths in the Tellem were used as wraps.

The Bandiagara finds of ancient cloth are highly unusual because cloth and the tools used to produce it (for example, looms) seldom leave a trace on archaeological sites. But spindle whorls made from durable fired clay are evidence that people were making thread. Spindle whorls are commonly found on Banda sites dating to the period after the 1700s. This suggests that cloth was made by most if not all households in recent centuries, as described by early British officials. But this does not seem to have been the case in earlier times when spindle whorls are only found at major trading towns like Begho, located to the south of Banda near present-day Hani. Prior to the 1700s, it seems that woven cloth was a luxury commodity which people got through trade. It was probably not available to everyone.

Though we cannot say precisely when, it seems likely that increasing access to cloth by a wide range of people after the 1700s probably fueled demands for new luxury textiles with which social and political elites distinguished themselves. Much of this demand was met through expanding Atlantic trade, whether in the form of raw materials like silks which were used to make luxury strip-woven cloths (for example, kente) or as finished textiles like Dutch wax prints.

Making a woven tray, Dompofie, 1995

Making Other Useful Things

Many useful household things were made from fibers other than cottons. The leaves of various palms and grasses provided the raw materials for making trays, mats and baskets

Men made trays useful for carrying, processing and storing foodstuffs and other purposes from local fibers.

They also made flexible mats used in earlier days as beds, to sit on, and also used to wrap the dead before burial.

Mat weaving, Sabiye, 1994
Mat weaving, Sabiye, 1994

Learn More:

Men’s and Women’s Weaving in Africa: Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria,” 2015, 38.22 minutes. Dr. Christopher Roy, University of Iowa, USA. This You-Tube video shows various kinds of looms and techniques of cloth weaving practiced in several West African countries, with Asante and Ewe examples showcased in Ghana.

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