Textile and Paper Technology

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Textile and Paper Technology


Materials. Evidence exists of several materials being used to produce both woven and beaten cloth between 500 and 1590 in West Africa. These include palm-tree bark from the forest region; camel and goat hair; young raffia palm-leaf fibers; bast fibers from stems of various local plants, including the hibiscus plant; cotton; flax for linen; thread produced by the West Africa native Anaphe silkworm; and mineral asbestos for a linen-like fireproof cloth. In addition, West Africans evidently used indigo for dyeing and gum for finishing the surface of cloth. Trade of indigo,


Although the Arab chronicler al-Bakri was told by some that asbestos came from a tree, those who knew more told him it came from a mineral in the ground:

Among the strange things found in the land of the Sudan is a tree called TWRZY which has a long thin trunk and grows in the sands. It has a big, puffed-up fruit containing white wool from which cloth and garments are made. Fire cannot damage the materials made of this wool, however long they are exposed to it. The jurist ‘Abel al-Malik relates that the people of al-Lamis (a place in those parts) wear only clothes of this kind. Stone with similar characteristics is found in the Dar’a valley and called in the Berber language tamatghust. When rubbed in the hand it becomes so soft that it takes on the consistency of flax. Robes and hobbles for domestic animals are made of this substance and they cannot be damaged by fire in any way. The garments of some of the kings of Zanata in Sijilmasa were manufactured out of it. A trustworthy person informed me that he was acquainted with a merchant who brought a handkerchief made of this substance for Ferdinand, the ruler of the Galicians, and said that it had belonged to one of the Apostles and that fire could make no impression on it. He let the king see it with his own eyes and thus gained enormous esteem in his eyes. Ferdinand showered riches upon him and sent the kerchief to the ruler of Constantinople in order that it might be put in their greatest church. For this the ruler of Constantinople sent him a crown and commanded that he be invested with it. Several persons have related that they saw the fringes of a kerchief made of this stuff in the possession of Abu ‘l-Fadl of Baghdad. When it was heated on the fire it became whiter. Fire [so to speak] washed it. It was like linen cloth.

Source: Al-Bakri, “The Book of Routes and Realms” / “Kitab al-masalik wa-‘l-marnalik,” in Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, translated by J. F. P. Hopkins and edited by N. Levtzion and Hopkins (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 83-84.

gum arabic, cotton, and flax to feed the textile craving was prodigious from the seventh century onward.

Sundiata’s Influence. Less known than his military and political innovations is Sundiata’s enormous influence on agricultural development. Mari-Jata (the Lion King or Sundiata) at the Gbara (Great Assembly) helped the tribes form a constitution that considered the interests and needs for the protection of all. Among the agricultural and technological innovations Sundiata introduced to the Empire of Mali were the extensive agricultural cultivation of cotton and the weaving of cotton. Thus he began West Africa’s centuries-long and highly successful cotton textile technology, industry, and art.

Non-Spun Fibers. The process of making bark into cloth requires the hammering or beating of the material until it is flexible. In the forest regions, bark was an abundant and accessible commodity and, therefore, widely used. From excavations at Igbo-Ukwe it is known that cloth made from the fibers of the young raffia palm and from bast (or stem fibers, such as hibiscus) were both common weaving materials in the 800s.

Spinning. An excavation in West Africa uncovered a sophisticated spinning tool, a clearly distinguished spindle whorl, dated as being from the thirteenth century. However, since cloth made of spun fibers predates the Tellem cave burial date of circa 1000, hand spinning without whorls was a much older technique. In addition, the Anaphe silkworm spun a silk thread used by weavers in Kano for a cloth widely and heavily traded in the 1400s.

Weaving Techniques. From Igbo and other communities’ archaeological evidence, it is clear that raffia palm weaving was widely used before cotton. The Tellem cave textiles are among the earliest and best available archaeological evidence of loom weaving of cotton in West Africa. Located near some of the headwaters of the Niger River in what is present-day Mauritania, the cave complex was occupied by the Dogon people before they migrated west to their present location in Mali to escape pressures to convert to Islam. The Tellem textiles are excellent examples of narrow strip weaving (ranging from four inches to fifteen inches) of the type produced by a double-heddle loom. Oral tradition from the Illorin-Yoruba weavers’ caste, or guild, indicates that this kind of loom weaving goes back to the 900s. They continue to use both the vertical and horizontal loom, with warping knowledge for the former being taught and transferred entirely by oral teaching, practice, and memory from master to apprentice. While the warping of the vertical loom is done on the loom directly, warping of the horizontal loom can be done either by laying warps out following the master weaver’s drawn pattern or by attaching warp yarns to spools on a pegged board and moving the board gradually back from the loom. Among these weavers women are allowed to use the vertical loom while men use the horizontal one; the justification is that the horizontal loom, which requires some pressure against the seated weaver’s stomach, would be unhealthy for a female if she were pregnant.

Dyeing. According to Kano weavers and dyers’ oral tradition, Hausa cloth dyeing dates from the mid 900s. Indigo, primarily Indigofera tinctoria, grown in the Maghrib, was the favored dye-stuff and was traded with the peoples to the south of the Sahara. Other botanicals also produce intense blue, including Lonchocarpus. Camwood was used in Liberia from the 1500s onward to produce a red or crimson dye for fabric. Other locally grown materials, such as kola nuts, also were used to dye cloth, though their dates of initial use are less clear. As a substitute for the natural dyeing of cloth, a laborious process that could last weeks for the fermentation process to be completed, some tribes’ weavers bought or bartered for scarlet cloth—from Maghrib, Egyptian, or European sources—and raveled it to employ the red fibers in their own fabrics.

Papermaking. Papermaking, brought to Africa and Europe by the Arabs (who learned it from the Chinese), proved more economical and universally producible than papyrus, which was formed from reeds, or parchment, which was made from animal skins. Paper affected the science and technology of West Africa because it was employed to produce large quantities of scientific and other materials of wide use in Islamic academic, technological, and commercial circles, including those in Timbuktu. It was in Timbuktu during his visit in the 1520s that, according to Leo Africanus, paper books were valued more than any other object. Paper can be made from a pulp from almost any kind of plant or cloth fiber, including the inner bark of trees, rags, bast (plant stem fibers), and recycled ropes and nets; its technology made possible the scholarly life of several early West African cities.


Lisa Aronson, “History of the Cloth Trade in the Niger Delta: A Study of Diffusion,” in Textiles of Africa, edited by Dale Idiens and K. G. Ponting (Bath, U.K.: Pasold Research Fund, 1980), pp. 89-107.

“Dogon,” in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York: Basic Civitas, 1999), p. 613.

Idiens, “An Introduction to Traditional African Weaving and Textiles,” in Textiles of Africa, pp. 5-21.

Venice Lamb and Alastair Lamb, “The Classification and Distribution of Horizontal Treadle Looms in sub-Saharan Africa,” in Textiles of Africa, pp. 22-62.

Cheryl Plumer, African Textiles: An Outline of Handcrafted Sub-Saharan Fabrics (East Lansing: African Studies Center, Michigan State University, 1971).

Claire Polakoff, Into Indigo: African Textiles and Dyeing Techniques (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1980).

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