Who wears African textiles, wrappa, kanga, kitenge, george?

Was it Adire, Adinkra, Aso-Oke, Bogolan, Dida, Kente, Kuba or Ndop or Wax Hollandais from VLISCO, FILTEX, MITEX Holland, GETZNER?

Was it sewn into an Agbada, Grand Bubu, Danshiki, Mabu, Ibhayi?


In drawings or paintings of European explorers or traders in gold, commodities or slaves, Africans are often portrayed naked or at best wearing only a white loin cloth, as if Africans did not have their own clothing. Looking at the names of clothes, styles in the (sub) title of this column, of course nothing is farther from the truth!

The earliest known African textiles were found in the archaeological site of Kissi in Burkina Faso. Fragments of cloth from the Igbo people of Nigeria dating from the ninth century were found at Igbi Ukwu. Ancient clothes and shrouds from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries were found in the Tellem caves of Mali.

‘Local’ production of African cloth

Weaving has always been an important feature in the production of clothing material throughout Africa. In this weaving and other techniques mostly local materials were used, like various plant fibers, but also wool, cotton and even leather and bark from trees. Would the proverbial grass skirt also have been among? Its stubborn appearance in traditional dances is almost convincing.

Some examples of locally produced African textiles are: Akwete woven cloth and dyed indigo cloth by Igbo people, Aso-Oke woven fabric and Adire- tie-dye produced by the Yoruba, Kente cloth woven by Ashanti and Ewe people, Barkcloth produced by the Buganda tribe, Mudcloth produced by the Bambara tribe, Kitenge – produced from Kenya and other regions of East Africa and finally Shweshwe produced in South Africa.

Cultural significance of particular clothing should also not be overlooked.

Not only were and are some clothes only used for particular traditional and cultural occasions. So do the Dogon believe that spinning and weaving is likened to human reproduction signifying re-birth. Among the Ashanti and Ewe, red and black cloth is worn at funerals, though for elderly black and white Kente cloth signifies the celebration of life.

Some African textiles are historical documents as they tell the stories of invasions or establish identity as the Asafo flags in Ghana.

As for colour locally produced natural dyes gave various shades of red, green, yellow, brown and black, though indigo was and is mostly dominant.

These dyestuffs might be used on the yarns prior to weaving, sometimes tie-dyed to form simple ikaki-like patterns, and they were used in the colouring and patterning of woven cloth. In some areas woven textiles and tailored garments were embroidered, especially in the region from Lake Chad westward to the inland Niger delta of Mali. There was also some occurrence of patchwork, appliqué, and quilting; and one tradition of hand-printed cloth. Hand-printed cloth was also found in Zanzibar, brought from India.

VLISCO’s 170th Anniversary & more

Founded in 1846 by Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen, Vlisco adapted its original batik fabrics to the markets of West and Central Africa where the business grew with the help of input on local tastes from its trading partners.

On Sunday 18th September VLISCO celebrated its 170th Anniversary in grand style in a beautiful cooperation between the Helmond Gemeente Museum, het Speelhuis, VLISCO and of course the Helmond City Council. In her speech at the exhibition the Mayor of Helmond, Elly Blanksma – van den Heuvel mentioned being proud that Helmond is the birthplace of this versatile and colourful textile manufacturer.

The anniversary celebration featured a special exhibition in the Helmond Gemeente Museum, a Fashion Show and African Dances, and a dinner. The exhibition, called 1:1/UN a UN, opened on September 18th 2016 and highlights the remarkable relationship between Helmond and Africa, between manufacturer and customer and between the Vlisco designs and the stories that are told around them. Alongside 1:1/UN a UN the Gemeentemuseum Helmond is exhibiting the work of of the British/Nigerian artist, Yinka Shonibare MBE, who often uses Vlisco designs for his stunning art.

Among those present were a number of women from Ghana, Nigeria, Benin & Ivory Coast, principal agents of VLISCO in their countries.

African consumers and traders have handed down their Vlisco fabric and the myths around the designs to their daughters and grand-daughters. Vlisco has asked 8 of these women from 6 different countries to be the faces of the 2016 marketing campaign, including the world famous, triple Grammy winning, African singer, Angelique Kidjo. Vlisco is proud to honour these exceptional and inspirational women.

Daily church wear or for Traditional & Cultural Events and Outings or Occasions?

Clothes are for wearing as we feel to cover our bodies out of modesty since man was created and committed its first sin. This is recorded in the Holy Bible in book of Genesis 3 verse 7.

Nowadays to us it is more a matter of what to wear, when and for what.

Although generally most Africans like to wear colourful printed cloth, unfortunately not everyone can afford to buy these and have to refer to locally produced clothing or even to the cheap ‘okrika’ second hand imported wholesale from Europe.

Dressing for the occasion, tribal, traditional, celebratory or cultural events represents the most occurring reason to don the most colourful and often decorated African clothing. Celebrating birth, outdooring and name giving, installation of chiefs and other local leaders, national festivities and of course attending church and religious services are examples of these occasions.

Talking about chiefs, their dressing sets them clearly apart from their subjects. Consider this recorded observation from British merchant Captain Hugh Crow when he visited the town of Bonny in the eastern delta region of Nigeria in 1801:

…chief’s wives have sometimes five, six, or more pieces of different kinds of cloth tied about them, especially when going to any of their festivals, so that the body looks like a roll, or truss of yarn, tied at both ends. On these occasions the ladies always use paint, daubing their faces in a remarkable manner…They are extremely fond of anything gaudy or uncommon amongst them in dress, and if they get hold of a showy article of European clothing, such as a coat or vest, will strut about in it with all imaginable consequence, as if it constituted an entire suit (Crow 1830).

Captain Crow might in my opinion have most certainly misunderstood the particular cultural meaning for this style of dressing.

Throughout West and Central Africa it is fashionable to wear African printed cloth for work particularly in government and administrative functions. On the other hand I got the impression when living there that in Benin and Togo everyone donned African clothing, an example I often followed. However in recent decades men have shifted to wearing western style suits. A variation to this mostly in East Africa is the Mao, Kaunda or Nyerere suit, a short sleeve top to down buttoned jacket and trouser of same, mostly dark, colour cloth at times with or by design without collar. Yes, I wore those too!

Women in East Africa, for long used their wrap around kanga or kitenge.


Colourful African attire is in my experience and practice the most comfortable wear, except during the cold sesasons here in Europe!

*Ato Bob is a former Dutch Diplomat who now consults with various NGO’s on African issues. He lives in Rotterdam and may be reached on atobobhensen@hotmail.com