The story of African fabric designs

There’s a lot to learn about the fascinating textiles and fabric design techniques born in Africa. From the lustrous textures and designs of the Madras, the embroideries of Kente, to the more subdued patterns on Bogolan fabrics and the vibrant colors of Samakaka, each textile is an art form that tells us something about the culture that produced it.

African people have an extensive history of making textiles from raw materials such as raffia, bast, palm, jute, flax, silk, tree bark and cotton. Fabric production in Africa dates from 5,000 BC in Ancient Egypt and differentiates itself through creative patterns, bold designs, and vivid colors. It goes without saying that African communities successfully celebrate their rich history through textiles and turn fabric design into an art form.

Let’s have a look at some of the most popular fabric designs that are still highly valued nowadays:

Bogolan – West African mud cloth

The African mud cloth is a traditional Malian fabric dyed with plant dyes and fermented mud, and it can take even a week to make depending on the weather conditions. The process starts by soaking a cotton cloth in a dye bath, sun-drying it, and then painting it with fermented mud.

This technique results in a rich-brown fabric elevated by beautiful handmade patterns. The modern approach to bologan implies dying the material with a tree leaf solution, then painting over it with black and white, resulting in a deep russet color.

The Bogolan Project – YouTube

Kente – West African strip weaving

The kente cloth emerged in West Africa in the 11th century and is currently considered Ghana’s national fabric. Later on, in 1697, Osei Tutu, the king of the Ashanti Kingdom, personally selected weavers to become experts in this complex fabric design technique and travel to the Ivory Coast to achieve perfection.

Kente fabrics are still worn today by Ashanti royals for special occasions like ceremonies, marriages, and sacred purposes. There are more than 300 kente handwoven fabric designs that evoke different virtues. For example, kyeretwie is associated with bravery, as it has been worn by warriors, while Toku Kra Toma commemorates Toku, a female warrior that fought courageously in the 18th century.

Visiting The Kente Weaving Workshop In Bonwire, Ghana – YouTube

Madras – a cloth with a controversial history

Madras was initially worn as a headwrap in Caribbean societies, imposed by slave owners. Black women had to conceal their bodies in bland fabrics and hide their hair under madras to diminish their beauty. Originally from India, it reached African lands in the 14th century through traders and gained popularity thanks to its versatility.

In the 17th century, madras became a valuable trading commodity, exchanged for gold, milk, salt and other essential resources. By the 18th century, this beautiful cloth made several African and Portuguese traders quite rich and became a staple for ethnic groups in Senegal, Cameroon, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Kalabari people used this cloth in passage rites and considered that it symbolized a person’s journey “from womb to tomb.”

La vision d’une styliste sur le tissu Madras – YouTube

Samakaka – a print to celebrate a fascinating country

The Samakaka print comes from Angola, and its beautiful symbols were inspired by Mumuila, a tribe in the Southern area of Angola. This fabric comes in various color combinations, but the most common variation uses black, red, and yellow, the Angolan flag’s colors. Black represents the African continent, yellow represents its wealth, and red represents Angola’s liberation and anti-colonization fight bloodshed.

Nowadays, Samakaka is a staple in everyday wear, but it still holds a deep cultural value and is worn during important ceremonies and celebrations.

Arte Africana SAMAKAKA – YouTube

The bottom line

Clothing plays an integral part in the way African people identify themselves and cherish traditions. It often symbolizes beauty, respect, wealth, and rank. Each fabric is a masterpiece that preserves its own history while finding its way into modern fashion through aesthetic value, pattern and color uniqueness, quality, and a fascinating melange of functionality and cultural heritage.

At Sweetlena, we pay homage to African culture and history in our own way. We create handmade cutlery with African-inspired motifs to spark interest in African spirituality and its contribution to the shaping of modern civilization, topics that still aren’t taught in school. You may check out our Uprising collection here.


How the colonial Madras fabric played a role in transatlantic slave trade

Cultural wear and fabrics from southern africa

Kente history

African Mud Cloth & Bogolan Fabric