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The Demand for the Versatile African Fabrics in Modern Day Fashion

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Fashion, like the society it represents, is constantly evolving by dynamic stages. Ever since man discovered the need for clothes, the textile industry all over the world has churned out tons of fabrics in all shapes and sizes, colors and hues, in plains and prints, cotton and hide, wools and furs, spandex and nylon; the list is getting longer by the season. As the modern standard for beauty is no longer dictated by the fashion of a superior race, the designers and clothing manufacturers have gone beyond the limits of their creative borders to experiment on fabrics from different countries. Famous designers such as Versace, Donna Karan, Gucci, Chanel, YSL and others have used African fabrics, Philippine weaves, English tats and Chinese spins in their Alta Moda designs.

In recent years, fashion moguls have shifted their interests towards the fascinating African weaves. This shift was probably inspired by the success of exotic olive-skinned ramp models wearing silks and lacessuch as Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Tanzania-born Herieth Paul, Angolan Maria Borges and the ever-fashionable First Lady Michelle Obama.

African textile was discovered to have existed since the first century. Fabric relics found in archaeological digs in northern Burkina Faso in Western Africa were made of wool and fine animal hair. Fragments of wool and cotton from the 11th and 13th century were discovered in Nigeria1.

Hand-spun fabrics found its way to America during the slave era. Many African slaves were skilled weavers before they were sold to white masters. The women dye and spin the yarn and the men weave. Different tribes weave their own versions of the cloth and they are distinguished by the patterns of the spun material.The distinction of each design bears cultural significance to every tribe.

Examples of traditional African textiles are:

  • Akwete cloth –woven by the Igbo people, the ethnic group in southeastern Nigeria
  • Asooke fabric - woven by Yoruba people, an ethnic group in southwestern Nigeria and southern Benin in West Africa
  • Adire- tie-dye produced by Yoruba people
  • Kente cloth - woven and worn by Ashanti and Ewe people
  • Barkcloth - produced by the Buganda tribe, single largest ethnic group in Uganda
  • Mudcloth- produced by the Bambara tribe, a large Mande racial group found mostly in Mali
  • Shweshwe – produced in South Africa
  • Kitengecloth - produced from Kenya and East Africa2

Modern designs are gaining popularity not only in their own country but also in other parts of the world. Prints using the traditional method of tie-dying to produce the Batik design and waxing have secured a niche in the international market, thanks to the insatiable appetite of eccentric designers who are continuously seeking new materials to make into clothes.

Colorful scarves are a part of the African fashion. The stiff silken stole makes impressive head ties or headwraps called “gele” in Nigeria and “duku” in Ghana. The piece of cloth elaborately wrapped around the head to create a semblance of a wide-brimmed hat is an eye-catching head accessory worn with a matching waist wrap. African First Ladies are seen wearing such head pieces during official travels abroad3.

The uniquely designed fabrics are not confined to clothing alone. Contemporary African art have incorporated animal skins into the cloth to make a handsome banner or a table centerpiece. Many framed wall decorations made of cloth that depict the history of the tribes are found hanging in Arts Museums and British and American homes. Safari-themed prints on upholstery covers with matching curtains create an authentic African ambiance that brightens up a drab living room.

Although the wraps will never go out of style, modern Africans wear comfortable clothes made of cotton to survive the arid temperature during the summer months. Locals can be seen wearing lightweight clothes made of seersuckers and viscous fabrics that can be washed and worn without pressing.

Authentic African fabrics will always be a high-valued commodity. Its global demand increases as appreciation for its art and culture is turning around in their favor. As long as the continent’s textile manufacturers continue to spin and weave fabrics of their people, the industry will flourish.


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