Monday, June 14, 2010

African Clothing History

In this series we will be sharing information about African clothing history.

Africa’s a big place, so people had very different styles of clothing in different parts of Africa. And this page covers a lot of time, from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages, so there were also a lot of changes in clothing during that time.
People in Africa seem to have started wearing clothing around 75,000 years ago -at least, that’s about the time that the first body lice got started, and lice need clothing to live in. The first clothing was made out of animal skins – leather and fur shawls and loincloths. And the first jewelry was probably made of seashells and feathers.
Bark cloth from the Congo, in central AfricaAfter many thousands of years, people began to make lighter, less sweaty kinds of clothes. Probably the first kind of cloth made in Africa was pounded bark fibers. You peel the bark off trees and pound it with a rock until the fibers get soft and the hard part breaks off. This makes small pieces of cloth which can be pounded or sewn together. In Uganda in Central Africa, for instance, people used the bark of fig trees. This kind of bark fabric may be related to the development of Egyptian papyrus. People also pounded cloth from the raffia palm. People dyed this bark cloth to make all kinds of patterns. The most important dye was indigo, which is the dye we use today to make blue jeans blue. Africans used tie-dyeing to make patterns on their cloth. In some parts of Africa, women did most of the fabric work, and in other parts of Africa, men did most of it. But early Africans also kept on wearing fur, and leather, and feather hats and headdresses, and jewelry made of ostrich shells, gold, feathers, and braided grass.
By about 2000 BC, some people in Africa began to weave their cloth instead of pounding it, probably because there were so many people now that there wasn’t enough bark for everyone. We know that the Egyptians were weaving linen by this time, at least. The idea of weaving gradually spread to other parts of Africa – almost immediately to Meroe, south of Egypt, and then more gradually to West Africa and Central Africa. Some people wove linen, others wove other kinds of grass like jute. Archaeologists have found local grasses woven into cloth like linen at West African sites from the 800’s AD. By the 1100’s AD people were using looms in Mauretania.
At first people made their own cloth, but soon a lot of North African cloth was made by experts, professionals – men and women who did not farm, but just wove or dyed cloth all day, and sold it to other people in order to buy their food. Under the Egyptians, and then the Carthaginians, and the Romans, most people bought their clothes instead of making them themselves. Under Islamic rule as well, there were organized guilds of weavers and dyers in North Africa, who controlled the production of linen, wool, and cotton for sale. Along the coast of East Africa, too, professional weavers and dyers made most of the cloth. By the 1400’s AD, West Africa also had professional dyers, who were famous all the way across the Sahara. These dyers worked mainly for the local kings, and their courts, making luxury fabrics for the king and other powerful people to wear – ordinary people still made a lot of their own cloth in West Africa. Because cloth was expensive to make, people didn’t want to cut it and waste any. Like people in Europe and Asia at this time, most people wore the cloth wrapped around themselves, rather than cutting it and sewing it to fit them the way we usually do. Men who were working outside wore just a loincloth (like a bathing suit), wrapped around their waists and tied in various ways. Women, and men who were more dressed up, wore a long piece of cloth wrapped around them in various ways, and sometimes covering their heads. Sometimes they used one long piece for a skirt, and another for a shawl covering their shoulders and chests. In Egypt, however, people wove plain linen tunics, like long t-shirts, and wore their clothes more shaped to their bodies. Soon people in Meroe, south of Egypt, also wore these tunics.
People first began to weave cotton in India, also around 2000 BC, but cotton weaving soon spread to Egypt, and all down the east side of Africa. By the 400’s AD, the people of Meroe and Kush were growing and weaving cotton for their clothes. Before 800 AD, people along the eastern coast were trading with India for cotton and silk cloth in fancy patterns, and for glass beads. Then people in East Africa began to dress a lot like the Indian people they traded with. Women wore tight pants under loose pleated skirts, with thin veils. By 800 AD, cotton cloth from India was being traded to Central Africa. Then by about 1000 AD, West Africans were importing cotton cloth too, across the Sahara Desert from North Africa, and soon in this whole area most people wore cotton clothing.
Wool came pretty late to Africa, because even though people in West Africa were keeping sheep by the 400’s AD, the kind of sheep they kept didn’t grow wool. They were only good for eating. But in North Africa, people did wear wool from their sheep. They also used the wool to weave tents, blankets, and rugs on vertical looms. When camels started to be common, people also began to weave camel hair for clothes.

No comments: