African Clothing - Iron Age
Indigo dye on cotton cloth
About 2500 BC, some people in Africa began to weave their cloth instead of pounding it, which makes more flexible, comfortable clothing. Probably African textile workers learned how to weave from West Asian weavers, so African weaving started in the places closest to West Asia, where trade was easier. The ancient Egyptians were probably the first Africans to weave linen. From Egypt, the idea of weaving gradually spread to other parts of Africa - almost immediately to Meroe, south of Egypt, and then more slowly to West Africa and Central Africa. Some people wove linen, other people wove other kinds of grass like jute. People in West Africa were weaving local grasses into cloth by hand by the 800s AD. By the 1100s AD people were using looms there, too.
Making looms and weaving were complicated, and soon most cloth was made by professional weavers. Even in 2500 BC professionals wove cloth in Egypt - men and women who did not farm, but just spun or 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.
Traders also brought other types of cloth to Africa, and again they came first to Egypt and East Africa. 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 400s AD, the people of Meroe and Kush were growing and weaving cotton for their clothes.
Wool came pretty late to Africa, because even though people in West Africa were keeping sheep by the 400s 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.
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.
An Egyptian painting of Nubians (from modern Ethiopia), about 1300 BC
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, which often had fancy pleating as you can see in the picture.
Learn by doing: a weaving project
Advanced version of African clothing from Quatr.us
African clothing in the Middle Ages
To find out more about African cloth and clothing, you might want to buy these books, or get them at your local library:
Traditional African Costumes Paper Dolls, by Yuko Green (1999).
African Girl and Boy Paper Dolls, by Yuko Green (1997).
African Textiles, by John Gillow (2003). Not for kids.