The Cotton Club Museum invited the Gainesville Handweavers Guild back for this year’s Florida Emancipation Day (May 20th) celebration. It was held on May 18th this year, because that was the closest Saturday.

Originally I thought I’d be giving a short lecture, like I did last year. That one was on enslaved weavers in the American South. This year I thought I’d give one on weaving traditions in various African nations, past and present, because I felt that last year’s talk gave the impression that weaving was a White people thing that was forced onto enslaved Blacks. I wanted to show that no, weaving is worldwide, and Africa has some amazing traditions.

The structure of this year’s event was changed, though, and I didn’t get to use my research. So I thought I’d post it here. The bulk of information available in English is on North and West African nations. I decided to focus on West Africa for my talk.

Oral tradition from the Ewe people says that West Africans were originally from the Niger basin region. They were weavers there, too, and brought their technology with them as they settled into what’s now Ghana, Burkina Faso, and the other countries in that area.

The complex strip weaving made famous in the region was, and continues to be, done by men. Male weavers use a different type of loom to women. In a men’s loom, the weaver sits inside the loom, on a low stool, and operates the treadles with his feet.

Men’s loom. Pic from Gilfoy (1988).

Women used horizontal looms, and did more basic weaving for household use. The fabrics I will be discussing here are men’s pieces, as there is far more information about them.

Fabrics are made in narrow strips, usually 6″-10″ wide, and sewn together to produce a wider finished fabric. The patterns are always worn with the pattern run horizontal to the body.

Most peoples in this region used cotton until recently. Cotton made its way from India to Egypt a very long time ago — evidence of cotton spinning has been found at the south end of the Nile from the 1st century c.e. — and then was brought via trade to West Africa. It eventually started growing around the edges of the Sahara, so it didn’t need to be brought as far.

One big exception to the cotton rule was the Fulani people, who lived in a drier climate. They herded sheep, and made wool cloths called khasa. They were used all over West Africa as home furnishings, essentially curtains to insulate beds and block off doors. They kept heat and mosquitoes out, and were popular trading items. These days most weavers use cotton and/or rayon.

There is only one colorfast dye plant native to West Africa, and that’s indigo. Until the area had contact with Arabs and Europeans, all cloth was blue, white, and dun (the latter two being undyed cotton). Weavers became skilled at making complex designs using only those colors.

Indigo patterns by Ashanti weavers. Pic from Gilfoy (1988).

Plain white cotton fabric was also dyed in complex patterns in some regions, like this modern cloth from Burkina Faso.

Mudcloth from KONKADA on Etsy.

When foreign traders started bringing in cloth from other parts of the world in the 17th century, African weavers realized they could use the exotic colors in their own work. They began unraveling the foreign textiles, and using the threads in their weaving. Modern designs are the direct result of this ingenious idea.

You can buy handwoven cloth online. There are many vendors on Etsy who ship from their home nations. I found several sources just by searching there for “handwoven kente cloth”. Note that there are also cheaper, machine-woven “kente” with printed designs. Make sure to read the product descriptions before buying. Some Africa-focused stores in America sell strip-woven fabric and garments as well.

West Africa has a long history of creating beautiful cloth, and modern weavers carry on this tradition. It’s worth seeking out information and examples of this lovely work.

Thank you to the Cotton Club for inspiring this rabbit hole. I enjoyed it immensely and plan to do more research. Stay tuned!


  • African Majesty: the textile art of the Ashanti and Ewe by Peter Adler and Nicholas Barnard (1992)
  • Patterns of Life: West African strip-weaving traditions by Passy Stoltz Gilfoy (1988)
  • Art of kente: history, designs, and drafts by Rhonda D. Crosman (master’s thesis from 2011 — available as a free download)
  • Kente weaving in Ghana by Tien Chiu (blog post from 2011)


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