A Journey Through West Africa's Textiles

A Journey Through West Africa's Textiles

Sikelela Mnqubeni

After a three-day tour with Prince Harry, Duchess Meghan Markle left Nigeria with more than just memories.

Gifted with two pieces of Aso Oke fabric, a symbol of appreciation for her visit, the Duchess proudly incorporated them into her outfits.

This choice, seen as a sign of respect for the culture and a nod to her Nigerian heritage, quickly attracted international attention.

How she styled these traditional fabrics sparked conversation amongst fans, critics, and style commentators alike, igniting a global fascination with the rich textile traditions of West Africa. 

 Embed from Getty Images

Regarded by many as Africa’s fashion capital, West Africa boasts a vibrant tapestry of textiles, each with a unique story to tell. From the symbolism woven into Kente cloth to the bold colours of Ankara, these fabrics transcend mere fashion; they are expressions of cultural identity, history, and artistic heritage.

Here we explore the fascinating world of West African textiles and discover the rich history, cultural significance, and unique production process.

Kente: A Royal Legacy

Kente Cloth Head Wrap Black Woman Ghana
While kente cloth was traditionally woven, many now prefer the more affordable printed version, enabling people to showcase their culture without the high cost of authentic woven textiles. PICTURE: Unsplash

Our journey begins in Ghana, where legend tells of two brothers who, inspired by a spider's intricate web, devised a new weaving technique. The resulting fabric, Kente, became a symbol of royalty and prestige within the Asante Kingdom.

Ghana Kente Cloth on a Loom
Artisans skillfully weave kente cloth on traditional looms, creating vibrant, intricate patterns that celebrate cultural heritage and craftsmanship. PICTURE: Creative Commons

Each pattern and colour holds a specific meaning, narrating stories of history, philosophy, and social values. Kente is more than just cloth; it's a visual representation of a rich cultural heritage.

Aso Oke

Model in a Mai Atafo Traditional Collection Aso Oke Kaftan at AFU Fundraising Fashion Show in Abidjan.
Model in a Mai Atafo Traditional Collection Aso Oke Kaftan at AFU Fundraising Fashion Show in Abidjan. 

Moving westward to Nigeria, we encounter Aso Oke, the "top cloth" of the Yoruba people. This hand-woven masterpiece is steeped in cultural significance. Traditionally reserved for special occasions like weddings and festivals, Aso Oke reflects the wearer's social standing through its intricate patterns and colours.

The process of creating Aso Oke is a skill passed down through generations, ensuring the preservation of this cultural treasure.

Today, Aso Oke continues to evolve, incorporating modern design elements while retaining its timeless elegance. 


Rich Factory Ankara Print Suit at Joburg Fashion Week 2019
Model showcasing the Rich Factory Ankara Print Suit at AFI's Joburg Fashion Week 2019

The vibrant and colourful Ankara fabric has become synonymous with African fashion. However, its origins lie in Indonesia, where the batik dyeing technique was born. Dutch traders introduced this technique to West Africa in the 19th century, where it was readily adopted and transformed.

Local manufacturers began producing their own wax prints, incorporating bold African motifs and symbols.

ZINHLE DESIGNS  Bebe Printed Tote Bag
The Bebe Printed Tote Bag by Zinhle Designs at House of Nala. The eye-catching Ankara print adds a touch of personality to the handbag. Click here to purchase. 

Ankara fabrics are not just visually stunning; they often carry messages and symbolism, reflecting the wearer's heritage or tribe.

From traditional attire to contemporary fashion statements, Ankara continues to be a powerful symbol of African identity and pride.


Malian Bogolanfini material
Bogolanfini, also known as mud cloth, is a traditional Malian textile handcrafted using fermented mud, creating unique patterns that tell stories of heritage and artistry. PICTURE: Creative Commons

Mali's Bògòlanfini, also known as mud cloth, boasts a fascinating history. Dating back to the 12th century, this fabric is traditionally crafted by men. The name itself reflects its creation process: "bogo" meaning earth or mud, "lan" meaning with, and "fini" meaning cloth.

Strips of natural-coloured fabric are meticulously dyed using fermented mud, creating beautiful patterns and a rich texture.

Bogolanfini Print by Urban Zulu of DRC and South Africa
Bogolanfini Print by Urban Zulu of DRC and South Africa at the AFU Fundraising Fashion Show in Abidjan. The designer created a mud cloth print on cotton fabric.

The designs, often passed down through generations, hold symbolic meanings, conveying messages and stories specific to certain communities.

Today, mud cloth is not only a fashion statement but also a popular choice for home decor, adding a touch of African artistry to any space.

Pagne Baoulé

Pagne Baoule by Kente Gentlemen presented at the AFU Fundraising Fashion Show in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire
Pagne Baoule by Kente Gentlemen presented at the AFU Fundraising Fashion Show in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire

Originating in Côte d'Ivoire, pagne baoulé is a vibrant textile steeped in history and cultural significance for the Baoulé people. Traditionally handwoven by men using a technique called "banco," the fabric features bold geometric patterns and symbolic motifs.

These motifs often depict proverbs, animals, or everyday objects, acting as a visual language that tells stories and conveys messages.

Larry Jay woven garment at AFU Fundraising Fashion Show

The vibrant colours used in pagne baoulé are typically rich blues, greens, yellows, and reds, achieved through natural dyes derived from plants and minerals.

Each pagne is unique, reflecting the creativity and skill of the weaver. Worn by both men and women for everyday wear and special occasions, pagne baoulé remains a vital part of Baoulé culture and identity.

Tie-Dye: A Celebration of Bold Colours

Laurence Airlines Tie Dye

Tie-dye, a beloved dyeing technique across the globe, finds a unique expression in West Africa. Here, cultures distinguished themselves with their bold and unapologetic use of colour. Unlike their Asian counterparts, who often favoured intricate patterns, African artisans embraced vibrant hues and both wild and symmetrical designs. 

They employed readily available materials like strips of grass to resist the dye, creating a distinctive aesthetic. The beauty of West African tie-dye lies in its celebration of the unexpected - the random bleeds of colour and the embrace of the natural variations in the dye itself, resulting in a stunningly organic look.


Sisters of Afrika at AFU Fundraising Fashion Show
A Sisters of Afrika tie-dye garment presented at the AFU Fundraising Fashion Show in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire.

Adire is a hand-dyed fabric known for its captivating abstract patterns. Traditionally made using indigo dye, Adire features a distinctive aesthetic that has become a beloved part of Nigerian fashion. The production process itself is a form of art, requiring skill and precision to achieve the desired patterns.

Batik: A Fusion of Technique and Tradition

Kente Gentlemen Pink Tie Dye Suit

Batik, another resist-dyeing technique, also found its way to West Africa, but with a distinct twist. While traditional batik often uses wax to create intricate patterns, West African artisans incorporated locally-sourced materials and dyeing methods. 

The resulting fabrics, though not as detailed as their Asian counterparts, boast a unique charm and cultural significance. These Batik fabrics, often featuring geometric or symbolic motifs, are still produced in some regions, adding another layer of artistic expression to the vibrant tapestry of West African textiles.

Ndop Cloth: A Symbol of Culture and Love in Cameroon

Ndop Cloth: A Symbol of Culture and Love in Cameroon
The Ndop cloth of Cameroon. The most distinctive feature of Ndop cloth lies in its intricate geometric patterns. These are achieved using a resist-dyeing technique, where certain areas are blocked from absorbing dye. PICTURE: Creative Commons

Originating in Cameroon, Ndop cloth, also known as the "Bamenda Gown," is a stunning textile with a rich history dating back centuries. Traditionally crafted by Bamileke women, Ndop cloth served as a marker of social status and cultural heritage. Different patterns and designs identified specific clans and lineages.

Creating Ndop cloth is a labour-intensive process. It begins with cultivating and harvesting cotton, which is then spun into thread. Natural dyes, derived from plants and other materials, colour the threads. Finally, the threads are woven on a traditional loom to create the base fabric.


The most distinctive feature of Ndop cloth lies in its intricate geometric patterns. These are achieved using a resist-dyeing technique, where certain areas are blocked from absorbing dye. The resulting patterns hold deep cultural and symbolic meaning, reflecting the heritage and social standing of both the maker and the wearer.

Beyond its social significance, Ndop cloth plays a romantic role in Bamileke culture. It features prominently in wedding celebrations, symbolizing love and commitment. Traditionally, grooms present Ndop cloth as part of the bride price, a gesture signifying their dedication to the relationship and respect for the bride's family.

A Celebration of Heritage

West African textiles are more than just beautiful fabrics; they are living testaments to a region's rich cultural heritage. Each piece tells a story, carrying traditions and symbolism passed down through generations.

As these textiles continue to evolve and find new expressions in the modern world, they serve as a powerful reminder of the enduring creativity and artistry of West Africa.

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