The Fabric of Africa

African Heritage House

Explore Alan Donovan's personal collection of textiles from the continent

The textiles of Africa
The art of making, designing and embroidering African traditional textiles is as old as time. African textiles can be used as historical documents. Cloth can be used to commemorate a certain person, event, and even a political cause. Textile has also been used to convey important cultural information, and often played a central role in festivities and ceremonies. Founder of The African Heritage House, Alan Donovan, renowned for his interest in collecting and archiving African treasures, took it upon himself to collect these pieces of cloth from different parts of the continent. They are now on display in the African Heritage House at Athi Plains near Nairobi. Here in this collection is a taste of what African textiles is and used to be back when the world was still new. The photo shows a Kereke woven tapestry from Niger. 

A collection of disappearing textiles from Congo, Mali, Nigeria and Kenya. Barney Hassan (seated), wears a hand printed fabric based on Nigerian “Adire” cloth. Photo by David Beatty.

Models posing with the African Heritage logo: a “Nimba” mask from Guinea. These are vanishing textiles from Kenya (silk gown trimmed with Kenyan Flamingo feathers), Congo, Madagascar, Ghana & Ethiopia. Photo by David Beatty.

Kuba cloth 
The people of the Bakuba kingdom (in present day Democratic Republic of Congo), found along River Kasai, weave these cloths from palm fibres. They were traditionally used for costumes and mats for royalty. The patterns in the cloth inspired early 20th century artists such as Matisse and Picasso.

Kuba cloth

This hand woven wrap was woven and embroidered for a King’s widow with a bamboo inlay to give the ripple effect along the edges.


All of the cloths are woven of the raffia palm and some old cloths are enlaid with beaten bark.

Many are adorned with shells. Some designs resemble patchwork or applique.

Kuba cloth

Kuba Cloths had a tremendous impact on the modern artists of the 20th century such as Picasso and Matisse, both of whom had huge collections of the cloths.

Ase Oke: Yoruba, Nigeria
Ase Oke is a cloth named after a Yoruba salutation meaning "greetings on the spending of money". It is woven exclusively by men on narrow strip looms from cotton or silk. It is important to Yoruba men and women since they lend visual splendour as well as social prestige to both the wearer and the weaver. It is one of the glorious 'prestige' fabrics woven on narrow strip looms by Yoruba men in Nigeria. Ase Oke often feature complicated lace-like patterns which were incorporated into weaves when imported lace was not available from England during World War II. Other designs feature gold and silver metallic threads. Ase Oke is worn by both men and women. 

Ase Oke styles

Among the types of traditional Ase oke worn by Yoruba people are the following;

Alaari - a rich red aso oke
Sanyan - a brown and usually light brown aso oke
Etu - a dark blue aso oke

Agbada and Ase Oke cloth

African Heritage models wearing designs created from hand woven fabrics of Nigeria. The male model wears a traditional “Agbada” woven by men in narrow strips of “Ase Oke” cloth

Ase Oke cloth

Usually woven by men, the fabric is used to make men's gowns, called Agbada, women's wrappers, called iro, and men's hats, called fila.

The Okene Cloth: Women’s weaves Nigeria
Woven cloth from the town of Okene in Nigeria. Okene is a “prestige” fabric woven by Yoruba women, who weave on wide stationery looms inside the house, as opposed to Yoruba men who weave on narrow hand looms outside. Many modern weaves incorporate metallic gold or silver threads giving the cloth a glorious sheen. These cloths give prestige to the weaver and dyer as well as the women who wear them, often as head-ties or wraps. Photo by David Beatty.


Okene is a “prestige” fabric woven by Yoruba women, who weave on wide stationery looms inside the house, as opposed to Yoruba men who weave on narrow hand looms.

Photo by Chris Whiteman.

Okene cloth

Many women’s weaves are named after the villages or area the fabric comes from such as “Okene”, “Akwete”, (woven by Ibo women) or “Bida” (woven by Nupe women).

Kente Cloth: Ashanti, Ghana
Kente is the most famous of all African textiles, and one of the world’s most complicated weavings. This cloth is woven by men on a combination of narrow hand-and-foot looms. It is traditionally woven for Ashanti royalty who wear it for ceremonial occasions e.g. 'stooling' or kingship.

Kente cloth

The gorgeous colors and geometric patterns are a perfect backdrop for the fabulous gold adornment and the fabled golden stool which the Ashanti display during royal ceremonies.


It is woven by Ashanti men in long narrow strips which are then joined together to form one magnificent cloth. It was originally woven of silk for the Ashanti royalty.

Models wearing Kente cloth

American models show African Heritage designs using hand woven Kente cloth from Ghana. This was a publicity shot for the largest show African Heritage ever staged in the USA for 60,000 guests at the San Diego Zoo in 1979.

Models wearing royal Kente cloth

African Heritage Models in Royal Kente cloth and gold jewellery.

Adire Cloth
Adire literally means "tie and dye" in the Yoruba language. The indigo dyed cloth is one of the famous cloths in Africa worn exclusively by women. Adire cloth is a patterned, starch resist cotton cloth akin to batik. Artist Niki Seven Seven is in the forefront of reviving the age old art of Adire.

In the early decades of the 20th century, new techniques of resist dyeing were developed, most notably the practice of hand-painting designs on the cloth with a cassava starch paste prior to dyeing. This was known as Adire Eleko.


Adire is the name given to indigo dyed cloth produced by Yoruba women of south western Nigeria using a variety of resist dye techniques. The earliest cloths were probably simple tied designs on locally-woven hand-spun cotton cloth much like those still produced in Mali.

African Heritage model, the late Irene Mugambi, in Nigerian Adire cloth

This outfit is from the Nigerian Festival - the first show in Nairobi in 1972 with all-African models and fabrics and African Heritage jewelry.

Bokolonfini is the Bambara name for the strip woven cotton cloth woven by men in Mali that is commonly referred to as “mud cloth”. This is because the cloth is first soaked in a dye made from bark and leaves, and then the design is painted on with a thick mud containing iron acetate collected from the bottom of lakes. Modern cloths are found in innovative designs, mainly in black, gold, brown and off white colours, which have found a big export market popular with interior decorators.
Lamba Mena: Merino, Madagascar
Lamba Mena is the most sumptuous fabric of all Malagasy weaving—“soie sauvage” (raw silk) in glorious shades of emerald green, deep purple, scarlet, burnt orange, walnut and ash white. Woven by Merina women, this fabric was traditionally reserved for the “famadihany” (turning of the dead) ceremonies when ancestors are recovered in magnificent shrouds, some signed in beads by the weavers.

Yolanda Masinde, Miss Kenya 2000, wearing a coat and gown of Lamba Mena from Madagascar, at African Heritage House.

Adinkira is hand-printed with stamps cut from the thick rind of the calabash (gourd) which can be "read" as each stamp has a meaning related to a proverb. Along with “Kente”, it is a royal cloth of the Ashanti, worn mainly for funerals (especially the black cloths) but also for “stoolings” (inaugurations) and other royal occasions. Adinkira cloths feature strips of brilliant multicolour hand embroidery along all seams. The seams of modern Adinkira cloths are often machine embroidered.  

African Heritage models wearing Adinkira cloth.

The male model wears the cloth as traditionally worn by African Royalty. The female model wears a design by African Heritage with beaded fringe.

Bamoun cloth...Cameroon

This is hand woven by men and worn by royalty, It shows a map of the royal compounds depicting the king's wives houses and farms, etc. In the photo, it is worn by an African Heritage dancer with Cameroon elephant headdress.

Ethiopian Shema cloth

Ethiopian Shema cloth is made from cotton and woven on a loom. It is usually white with different colours and patterns used for the borders

Model wearing a gown trimmed with Ethiopian “Shema” cloth arriving at the Black Expo at the Chicago amphitheatre in 1971, hosted by the Rev Jesse Jackson. This gown was the very first African Heritage design which had a wrap attached to the gown that could be thrown over the arm or around the head

Credits: Story

Curated by:
Magunga Williams; writer and blogger []
Martin K. Maitha; writer []

Photography by:
Kabutha Kago []
Alan Donovan []
David Beatty []

Associated Manager:
Fred Kithinzi of Belva Digital []

Credits: All media
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