The Difference Between West African Textiles And South African Textiles
Africa, my home, is a complex social and historical entity. Our textiles are the major form of expression that we use to define ourselves, we use our textiles as a means of communicating in a nonverbal way.
We have most of our women use these textiles to carry out messages to the world through their outfits. We have a variety of fabrics from different groups of people.
We have some of our textiles and wax prints named after personalities, cities, buildings, sayings, or events. The producer, name of the product, and registration number of the design are printed on the selvage, protecting the design and allowing people read the quality of the fabric.
West Africa and South Africa are known for their greatness in the production of African prints. However, I would like to bring to your notice the differences between these regions and their textiles which makes them stand -out.
West Africa is blessed to be one of the world’s great textile-producing regions. They have had a cloth weaving culture for centuries via the strip weave method. The yarn available locally for spinning was cotton, which grew in at least two colors, white and pale brown. In some places, wild silk was also spun, while raffia and bast fibers were available in addition, as were imported textiles and fibers from trans-Saharan and coastal trade networks, the latter from the late fifteenth century onward.
West African fabrics are characterized by their bright colours, bold and geometric designs. West African fabrics are 100% cotton and brightly coloured. Some are subtly woven damask; others are plain-weave cotton.
Kente is a brightly coloured, inked material with different patterns and designs which are made in Ghana. This cloth is known as “nwentoma” meaning woven cloth in the Akan – ethnic group of South Ghana. The Kente cloth is a type of silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips. It has also been adopted by Cote d’Ivoire. The Kente was originally manufactured in yellow and green, but we have now seen the fabric in different colours and designs without losing the Kente pattern.
Kente comes from the word kenten, which means basket in the Asante dialect of Akan. It is an Akan royal and sacred cloth worn only in times of extreme importance and was the cloth of kings. Over time, the use of kente became more widespread. In Agotime, kente weaving was not related to royalty, and weavers create kente for themselves or clients. Its importance has remained and it is held in high esteem by southern Ghanaians. Globally, it is used in the design of academic stole in graduation ceremonies.
Shweshwe, also known as isishweshwe and shoeshoe is a printed dyed cotton fabric manufactured in Eastern Cape of South Africa by Da Gama Textiles and widely used for traditional South African clothing. Da Gama Textiles are the only manufacturers in the world who make authentic shweshwe.
It was traditionally used for weddings and family functions and was only produced in three colours (Brown, Red, Blue). It was originally dyed indigo, which is why its formal name is ‘Indigo-dyed discharge printed fabric’.
The Tswana, Sotho and Pedi of Southern African use it in their traditional ceremonies as well.
Original Shweshwe fabric has a distinct texture and scent. Some say that it has a salty taste too. Another sign it’s an original Shweshwe is in its width measurements. While standards fabrics have a 45 or 60 inches width, Shweshwe has a width of 36 inches. Shweshwe tends to be rigid.
Today, shweswehe is used by all ethnic groups in contemporary South African fashion design, upholstery and accessories manufacturing.
South African fabrics, unlike West Africa, have their fabrics in very dull colours like indigo with the occasional red or chocolate brown design and they are not as bold as West African fabric.
Not all fabrics are 100% cotton they are mostly South African export quality cotton because these fabrics are starched in the factory – that’s the tradition – they are quite stiff when new. After washing they are lovely and soft and easy to work with.