The African Aesthetic: Textiles Part I



Traditional Patterns & Designs

Africa is blessed with various patterns. Almost everywhere, you look, you will see different shapes and colors, textures and lines designed in all sort of manner. Take a drive anywhere around the African Continent and look for patterns taking note of the decorated houses, road stall and the women across the street. Observe the woven patterned baskets on their heads and observe the colorful printed or dyed fabrics they are wearing. Therefore, in nature and all around us especially in Africa, various patterns can be seen. On the land, there are observation of living things like trees, thorns, pods and seed and all these reveal elegant shapes, lines and patterning. Beautiful patterns are also seen from camouflage markings on animals, birds and insects alike. Even the oceans waves creates textures in the sand with seas shells and fish having beautiful intricate patterning which can be used for adornment and the coral create wonderful outline shapes. Let us look at some of African’s patterns and designs.




The Mudcloth  which is also know as Bogolanfini like many other African cloth is made by using a technique that weaves both cloth and color together. It is made from fermented mud and can be said to have originated from Mali’s Banana Culture. In their culture, this pattern is worn as camouflage by hunters and equally used as badge of status for ritual protection. After initiation into adulthood and after childbirth women are wrapped with the Mudcloth. Traditionally, it is believed that the Mudcloth takes away any dangerous or evil forces. The patterns on the cloth have historic and cultural significance. They were used during the famous battle between the French and the Malian Soldier and they are significant to the Bamara mythology. In recent times, the Mudcloth or Bogolanfini is very Paramount in the Malian cultural Identity and this it has maintained for over 40 years.


The Mudcloth is a handmade Malian cotton fabric dyed using a process of fermented mud and this dates back to the 12th Century. In the Bambara Language the word, Bogolanfini comprises of three words. Bogo meaning earth or mud. Lan meaning with and Fini meaning cloth which leads to the word being translated as Mudcloth. The Mudcloth  is so special because each piece of it has a story to tell from the arrangement of the symbols which reveals something secret about the intended meaning and this was passed down from generation to generation most especially from mother to daughter.



How to make Mudcloth  (Bogolanfini)

In a traditional setting, the men were charged with the responsibility of weaving the narrow strips of the plain fabric, which will then be pieced together into a larger rectangular cloth. Below are the steps used in making a mud cloth:

  • The cloth is dyed in baths of leaves and branches of trees with the dye acting as a mordant
  • The dyed cloth is sun-dried and pattern painted with a special mud collected from ponds during previous seasons and left to ferment.
  • As the cloth dries, the dark mud turns gray and the cloth is washed to remove excess mud. This process is repeatedly done and with each application, the mud-painted area on the cloth becomes darker. The yellow area are bleached and it turns the pattern brown. The cloth is left to dry under the sun and the bleach solution is washed off with water. What remains is a white pattern on a dark background.



Bakau, The Gambia


Evidence of various forms of Batik usage was found in far East, Middle East, Central Asia and even in India from over 2000 years ago. It is worthy to note that these areas developed independently without the influence of trade or cultural exchanges. Not withstanding, it is likely that the craft spread from Asia through the Middle East through the Caravan Route. Batik was practiced in China during the Dui Dynasty. In Japan, it was in the form of screens decorated with trees, animals, flute players, hunting scenes and stylized mountains.


In 1677, export trade of Batik from China started and this lead to the existence of the cloth in countries like Java, Sumatra, Persia etc. In Egypt, linen and woolen fabric has been excavated and they were bearing white patterns on a blue ground. In Africa, resist dyeing using cassava and rice paste has existed for centuries in the Yorubas tribe of Southern Nigeria and Senegal. The Java Island in Indonesia was where the Batik reached its greatest peak. The Dutch brought artisans from the country to teach warders in several factories in Holland. This was in the year 1835 and this lead to the production of imitation batik by the Swiss in 1940s.


Tradition & Cultivation

Example exist of various types of Batik textiles in many parts of Africa but the most developed and popular ones are to be found among the Yorubas in Southwestern part of Nigeria. Two method of resist are employed in making the Batik.

  • Adire Eleso: this involves tied and stitched designs
  • Adire Eleko: this involves the use of starch paste. The paste is gotten from Cassava, flour, rice, alum, copper sulphate which are all booked together to produce a smooth thick paste.



The paste is applied in different ways like using freehand drawing of traditional designs using feather, thick stick, piece of fine bone etc. Women mostly do this. The other way is by forcing the cloth through a thin metal stencil with a flexible metal or wooden tool. This ensure accurate repeat patterns to be achieved and men mostly do it.

This is usually a family tradition passed down from mother to daughter as a form of business. The cloth is divided into squares or rectangles and the design made on them represent everyday tool, cravings, activities or traditional images of culture or tribal history. A Batik cloth usually consist of two, two and half yard piece sewn together.

The traditional dye used in this process is the indigo, which is a plant that grows throughout Africa with many countries cultivating the plant to produce different varieties of color.

  • Apply the dye resist on the cotton cloth
  • Once the resist is dry, the fabric is dyed in a large clay pot or pit dug in the earth.
  • After drying, the paste is scrapped off to reveal a white or pale blue design

The normal cloth used to make this design is cotton but high prized clothing using wild silk can also be used.


Stay turned for Textiles Pt. II!



Saheed, Z. S. (2013). ADIRE TEXTILE: A CULTURAL HERITAGE AND ENTREPRENEURIAL CRAFT IN EGBALAND, NIGERIA. International Journal of Small Business and Entrepreneurship Research, 11-18.


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