Social Fabric: African Textiles Today

The history, manufacture and social significance of southern and eastern African textiles.

Printed cloth (kanga) (early 21st century), From the collection of: British Museum
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Textiles are the most obvious visible signifier of culture throughout Africa. The history, beliefs, politics, fashions, status and aspirations of people are communicated through the colours and patterns of textiles and the occasions on which they are worn or otherwise utilised. These textile traditions are part of a historical and contemporary global trading network driven by African taste and patronage, and they are a constant source of inspiration for artists.

Printed cloth (kanga) (2002)British Museum

Global issues: eastern Africa

Kangas are rectangular printed cloths, each with their own inscription written in the same place in every design; they are sold and worn in matching pairs and are principally a woman’s garment in eastern Africa, though also often worn singly by men at home and by Maasai men in public. A combination of inscription, overall design, and the ways in which a kanga may be worn make it a remarkable medium of communication. In the globalising world of the 21st century, kanga may be used to demonstrate a woman’s stance on global issues, her political allegiance and even her alignment with a collective vision for the future.

Kangas may carry a political or educational message which takes the form of a rallying call. This kanga has an inscription which reads: ‘We young people declare war against HIV and AIDS because we have the capacity and the will to do it’, thus aligning those who wear it with the global struggle.

Printed cloth (kanga), 2008, From the collection of: British Museum
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Tremendous celebrations greeted the news in Kenya, his father’s homeland, of Barack Obama’s election as 44th President of the United States. The inscriptions in Kiswahili read: ‘Congratulations Barack Obama. God has granted us Love and Peace’.

Printed cloth (kanga) (2005)British Museum

Individual concerns: eastern Africa

Kangas reflect changing times, fashions and tastes. They provide a detailed chronology of the social, political, religious, emotional and sexual concerns of those who wear them. Their patterns and inscriptions also vary according to the age of the wearer and the context in which the cloth is worn. Kangas provide ways of suggesting thoughts and feelings which cannot be said out loud, and of relieving suspicions and anxieties. They move between the realms of the secular and the sacred, playing a central role in all the major rite-of-passage ceremonies in a woman’s life, yet also being used for the most mundane of functions.

The inscription reads: ‘The woman is the catalyst to development’ and the kanga was printed for the KALI MATA KI JAI, ‘Long live the black mother’ women’s centre in the village of Gezaoule. This cooperative is supported by a charity based in Holland.

Printed cloth (kanga) (early 21st century), Kaderdina, From the collection of: British Museum
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Kangas are used to communicate a range of messages, including political pledges. This kanga bears an inscription in Kiswahili: SINA SIRI NINA JIBU, ‘I have no secrets but I have an answer’

Printed cloth (shweshwe) (2008)British Museum

Global issues: southern Africa 

Textiles in southern Africa sometimes celebrate world figures, including leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Josina Machel, as well as political movements, such as the African National Congress in South Africa and Frelimo in Mozambique. Great sporting events such as the FIFA World Cup and global issues such as women’s rights and freedom of expression are also celebrated through textiles. The discharge-printed indigo cloth, commonly known as shweshwe, and the factory-woven Seana Marena or ‘king’s blankets’ have complex histories which may be traced back to a single historical figure, King Moshoeshoe I (about 1786–1870) who defied British, Boer and Zulu forces alike to found the modern country of Lesotho. 

The wearing of shweshwe was introduced to black southern Africans in the mid 19th century by the charismatic King Moshoeshoe I (about 1786–1870) of the Sotho people. Although a standard range of patterns has remained popular in southern Africa, innovations are regularly introduced, some inspired by traditional mural motifs, others by introducing images such as this of another dynamic southern African statesman, Nelson Mandela.

Woman's wrap (capulana) (late 20th century), From the collection of: British Museum
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This capulana commemorates Josina Machel (1945–70) ‘the late lamented mother of the nation’. She was a key figure in the Mozambican independence struggle, marrying Samora Machel, Mozambique’s first president. She bore him a child, Samora Junior ‘Samito’, but tragically died at the age of twenty-five. She campaigned for women’s emancipation in Mozambique and established a visionary social services programme.

Printed cloth commemorating the 2010 FIFA World Cup, 2010, From the collection of: British Museum
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This cloth celebrates the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Long a popular sport, football is an increasingly important factor in African life and politics and is also providing African players and the countries they represent with a positive global profile. African textile traditions, always a barometer for popular taste and opinions in Africa, inevitably reflect this powerful current.

Printed cloth (kanga) (mid 20th century)British Museum

Individual concerns: southern Africa 

In southern Africa men and women wear particular textiles at all the important rites of passage in their lives to declare new status and identity. On the Comoros Islands women wear cheramine, completely covering their bodies, while in Mozambique they wear capulana with a headscarf, lenço, and tailored blouse, quimau. On Madagascar lamba hoany is similar to kanga, including an inscription in Malagasy, while in Angola the Herero people wear samakaka at all important events including initiation, marriage and funeral ceremonies. In South Africa and Lesotho, blankets with elaborate colours and patterns are worn by both men and women in Sotho society to signify rites of passage.

The inscription on this kanga from Tanzania reads, 'The mangoes are ready', an invitation from wife to husband to help himself. For almost a century the proverbs and sayings (methali) which appear on kangas have been an essential part of their design and appeal.

Printed cloth (capulana), 2008, From the collection of: British Museum
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This woman’s three-piece outfit has been tailored from kangas printed in Tanzania. The inscription NAJILEBI has two possible meanings in Kiswahili: ‘I can’t be deceived’ or ‘I’m showing off’.

Printed cloth (shweshwe) (2008)British Museum

Island cases: traders and global connections

Many textile traditions of eastern and southern Africa have global and cosmopolitan histories which include a potent mix of consumers, traders, missionaries, colonisers and manufacturers. Many kanga traders, such as the Kaderdina family in Mombasa and the late K.G.Peera in Dar Es Salaam, are of Indian heritage, though their trading links extend around the world. Tartan cloth was introduced by Scottish missionaries, soldiers and traders, and is now part of the ‘traditional’ dress of peoples as diverse as the Maasai of eastern Africa and the Zulu of South Africa. The visionary King Moshoeshoe I (about 1786–1870) of the Sotho people is thought to have been instrumental in assimilating traditions such as shweshwe, from its roots in Germany and Switzerland into the distinctly southern African textile it is today. 

The production of shweshwe moved to South Africa in the late 1980s when the firm Da Gama bought rollers from ABC in Manchester, UK, and set up a printworks at King William’s Town. The ‘Three Cats’ trademark originated in Manchester in the 1930s, but Da Gama have now introduced some more distinctively African trademarks such as the ‘Three Leopards’.

Folded cloth, 2003, From the collection of: British Museum
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As well as selling kanga, the Kaderdina family has traded many different types of cloth from its shop in Biashara Street, Mombasa. Red cloth has always been extremely popular and enjoys a wide market, from Maasai warriors to the mganga, or spirit healers, of eastern Africa.

Tartan cloth, 2006, From the collection of: British Museum
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Maasai warriors from Kenya and Tanzania have a long tradition of wearing tartan patterned blankets, which have become part of the cultural heritage of the region. The logo which appears beneath the inscription on the central panel is of the two famous 17th-century Swahili side-blown horns, siwa, from Lamu and Pate Islands on the north coast of Kenya.

Printed handkerchief (kanga) (mid 19th century)British Museum

The history of kanga design

The familiar rectangular form of today’s kanga, with a continuous border, a central image or pattern, and an inscription in Kiswahili, has changed considerably from early prototypes. The first kangas were created in the late 19th century by sewing together six printed handkerchiefs, lenço, which the Portuguese had traded to eastern Africa for centuries. Soon hand-stamped versions on a single piece of cloth replaced the sewn lenço, and these in turn were superseded by factory-printed textiles, while all the time the form and patterning of kanga were evolving. The most successful designs and inscriptions are those which will appeal most to women, so manufacturers depend heavily on the advice of their female African customers.

Printed handkerchief from the Comoros Islands and of a type traded by the Portuguese along the eastern African coast since the 16th century.

Printed veil (kanga) (early 20th century), From the collection of: British Museum
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Early kangas were printed solely in red and/or black on a white ground; the inclusion of a Kiswahili proverb or saying written in Arabic script was a slightly later addition. This inscription roughly translates as: ‘My husband, I want a kanga which is my heart’s desire’.

Textile stamp (1940)British Museum


Early kangas were hand-stamped onto plain cotton sheeting using carved wooden blocks, sometimes with metal or fibre inserts. These blocks were either carved locally (the Swahili are renowned for their wood carving) or imported from India where a long tradition of hand-stamping textiles exists. The practice of hand-stamping continued for many years alongside imported factory-printed designs from Europe. During the Second World War (1939–45), when supplies of imported cloth dried up, hand-stamping became the sole means of printing kanga once again. In the late 1960s integrated textile mills opened in eastern Africa, though overseas production of kanga shifted to Japan, Pakistan and particularly India.

Early designs were hand-stamped onto cloth using wooden blocks to create textiles known as kanga za mera. The two groups of stamps are from Lamu Island, Kenya and from Zanzibar Island, Tanzania. Those from Lamu were hand-carved by Swahili craftsmen. Those from Zanzibar include metal and fibre inserts and were probably imported from India.

The ‘crosses and tangerine’ design which can be seen on the block from Lamu pictured here, was particularly used on kisutu, the wedding kanga. Note the ‘Paisley’ pattern on one of the blocks from Zanzibar became enormously popular because of its similarity to the shape of the cashew nut, which is a powerful symbol of wealth and fertility in eastern Africa.

Printing block, 1940, From the collection of: British Museum
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'Untitled' from series 'Untitled Woodcut Prints' (2010) by Peterson KamwathiBritish Museum

Textiles and contemporary art

Contemporary artists of African heritage are becoming big news on the world stage, and many of them are influenced profoundly by the textile traditions of their native land.

In this series of untitled woodcut prints, the Kenyan artist Peterson Kamwathi uses the striking image of people queuing, creating echoes of the published images of blindfolded prisoners from Afghanistan, or hooded prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. Kamwathi makes these images all the more poignant by covering the figures in the repeating patterns of flowers and leaves seen on the printed cloths of the region, kanga and kitenge. In eastern Africa, as in other parts of Africa, women (in particular) and men may dress in the same pattern and colour of cloth to show unity and friendship, whether at a wedding, a funeral or some other special event.

Credits: Story

Social Fabric: African Textiles Today was held at the British Museum and is now a touring exhibition.

It will tour across the UK to the following
museums and galleries:

Powell-Cotton Museum, Kent
14 February–17 May 2015

Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter
26 May–6 September 2015

Ipswich Museum
September 2015–January 2016

William Morris Gallery
February–May 2016

Curated by Dr Chris Spring

The book African Textiles Today, written by curator Dr Chris Spring, is available from the British Museum shop online.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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