Social Fabric

— African Textiles Today

The history, manufacture and social significance of southern and eastern African textiles.

Textiles are the most obvious visible signifier of culture throughout Africa. The history, beliefs, politics, fashions, status and aspirations of people are communicated through the colours and patterns of textiles and the occasions on which they are worn or otherwise utilised. These textile traditions are part of a historical and contemporary global trading network driven by African taste and patronage, and they are a constant source of inspiration for artists.

Printed cloth (kanga)

(early 21st century)
British Museum
Printed cloth with a map of Africa, with Kenya in green, inscribed: KARIBU MGENI ‘Welcome Stranger’, and with a floral border motif.

Global issues: Eastern Africa

Kangas are rectangular printed cloths, each with their own inscription written in the same place in every design; they are sold and worn in matching pairs and are principally a woman’s garment in eastern Africa, though also often worn singly by men at home and by Maasai men in public. A combination of inscription, overall design, and the ways in which a kanga may be worn make it a remarkable medium of communication. In the globalising world of the 21st century, kanga may be used to demonstrate a woman’s stance on global issues, her political allegiance and even her alignment with a collective vision for the future.

Kangas may carry a political or educational message which takes the form of a rallying call. This kanga has an inscription which reads: ‘We young people declare war against HIV and AIDS because we have the capacity and the will to do it’, thus aligning those who wear it with the global struggle.

Printed cloth (kanga)
British Museum
A rectangular machine-printed white cotton cloth (kanga), with a continuous patterned border of black and yellow diamond-shaped motifs, enclosing a yellow panel and central circular design containing the map of Tanzania upon which a yellow AIDS ribbon is superimposed. Around the top of this circular design is an inscription in Kiswahili: VIJANA TUMETANGAZA VITA DHIDI YA UKIMWI “We young people declare war against AIDS”. Red AIDS ribbons, increasing in size, spread out from this central design towards the four corners. Just above the centre of the lower border is an inscription in Kiswahili: KWA SABABU UWEZO TUNAO NA NIA TUNAYO “Because we have the capacity and the will to do it”.

Tremendous celebrations greeted the news in Kenya, his father’s homeland, of Barack Obama’s election as 44th President of the United States. The inscriptions in Kiswahili read: ‘Congratulations Barack Obama. God has granted us Love and Peace’.

Printed cloth (kanga)
British Museum
Cotton cloth (kanga) printed predominantly in red and black on a white background. Depicts black and white photographic image of Barack Obama in the centre of the cloth, flanked on either side by a map of the African continent in blue, green and white, with black outlines. The border on all four sides of the cloth has a repeating design of four heart-shaped patterns on a red and white checked background. The inscription in Kiswahili reads: “Congratulation Barack Obama. God has granted us Love and Peace.”

Individual concerns: Eastern Africa

Kangas reflect changing times, fashions and tastes. They provide a detailed chronology of the social, political, religious, emotional and sexual concerns of those who wear them. Their patterns and inscriptions also vary according to the age of the wearer and the context in which the cloth is worn. Kangas provide ways of suggesting thoughts and feelings which cannot be said out loud, and of relieving suspicions and anxieties. They move between the realms of the secular and the sacred, playing a central role in all the major rite-of-passage ceremonies in a woman’s life, yet also being used for the most mundane of functions.

The inscription reads: ‘The woman is the catalyst to development’ and the kanga was printed for the KALI MATA KI JAI, ‘Long live the black mother’ women’s centre in the village of Gezaoule. This cooperative is supported by a charity based in Holland.

Printed cloth (kanga)
British Museum
A rectangular, printed cotton cloth (kanga), with four borders composed of repeating blue and black floral motifs on an orange ground. The borders enclose a central design composed of repeating images, also in blue, orange and black, of a woman cycling with a basket of goods on the back of the bicycle.

Kangas are used to communicate a range of messages, including political pledges. This kanga bears an inscription in Kiswahili: SINA SIRI NINA JIBU, ‘I have no secrets but I have an answer’

Printed cloth (kanga) (early 21st century)
British Museum
A rectangular machine-printed white cotton cloth (kanga), with a continuous patterned border of yellow, black and red floral motifs, enclosing a central red rectangle with small, repeating ‘rain-drop’ motifs in white and black, and eight large yellow roundels containing red floral motifs with ‘chrysanthemum’ centres and ‘cashew’ petals. Just above the centre of the lower border is an inscription in Kiswahili written in the Roman script: SINA SIRI NINA JIBU “I have no secrets but I have an answer.”

Global issues: Southern Africa

Textiles in southern Africa sometimes celebrate world figures, including leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Josina Machel, as well as political movements, such as the African National Congress in South Africa and Frelimo in Mozambique. Great sporting events such as the FIFA World Cup and global issues such as women’s rights and freedom of expression are also celebrated through textiles. The discharge-printed indigo cloth, commonly known as shweshwe, and the factory-woven Seana Marena or ‘king’s blankets’ have complex histories which may be traced back to a single historical figure, King Moshoeshoe I (about 1786–1870) who defied British, Boer and Zulu forces alike to found the modern country of Lesotho.

The wearing of shweshwe was introduced to black southern Africans in the mid 19th century by the charismatic King Moshoeshoe I (about 1786–1870) of the Sotho people. Although a standard range of patterns has remained popular in southern Africa, innovations are regularly introduced, some inspired by traditional mural motifs, others by introducing images such as this of another dynamic southern African statesman, Nelson Mandela.

Printed cloth (shweshwe)
British Museum
Woman’s cloth (shweshwe) made of cotton. This rectangle of blue cotton is printed with white diamonds and two stripes across the bottom with a row of photographs of Nelson Mandela between the stripes.

This capulana commemorates Josina Machel (1945–70) ‘the late lamented mother of the nation’. She was a key figure in the Mozambican independence struggle, marrying Samora Machel, Mozambique’s first president. She bore him a child, Samora Junior ‘Samito’, but tragically died at the age of twenty-five. She campaigned for women’s emancipation in Mozambique and established a visionary social services programme.

Woman’s wrap (capulana)
(late 20th century)
British Museum
Woman’s wrap (capulana) made of cotton. A rectangle of orange cotton is printed with a repeating pattern of a photograph (surrounded by red and yellow flowers with green stems) of a woman holding a baby alternating with the words JOSINA MACHEL, above the Mozambique coat of arms and flag, and above the words: A SAUDOSA MAMÁ DA NAÇÃO. Referring to Josina Machel, this translates as ‘late lamented mother of the nation’. There is a red, yellow and blue geometric border along top and bottom.

This cloth celebrates the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Long a popular sport, football is an increasingly important factor in African life and politics and is also providing African players and the countries they represent with a positive global profile. African textile traditions, always a barometer for popular taste and opinions in Africa, inevitably reflect this powerful current.

Printed cloth commemorating the 2010 FIFA World Cup
British Museum
A multi-coloured printed cloth celebrating the 2010 FIFA World Cup held in South Africa. The cloth is embellished with repeating images of the South African flag, the Jules Rimet trophy, footballs and other motifs.

Individual concerns: Southern Africa

In southern Africa men and women wear particular textiles at all the important rites of passage in their lives to declare new status and identity. On the Comoros Islands women wear cheramine, completely covering their bodies, while in Mozambique they wear capulana with a headscarf, lenço, and tailored blouse, quimau. On Madagascar lamba hoany is similar to kanga, including an inscription in Malagasy, while in Angola the Herero people wear samakaka at all important events including initiation, marriage and funeral ceremonies. In South Africa and Lesotho, blankets with elaborate colours and patterns are worn by both men and women in Sotho society to signify rites of passage.

The inscription on this kanga from Tanzania reads, ‘The mangoes are ready’, an invitation from wife to husband to help himself. For almost a century the proverbs and sayings (methali) which appear on kangas have been an essential part of their design and appeal.

Printed cloth (kanga)
(mid 20th century)
British Museum
A rectangular machine-printed white cotton cloth (kanga), with a continuous dark green and black border with repeating mango and cashew motifs in yellow and black. A central, rectangular design shows a mango tree with a ladder propped against its trunk. Just above the centre of the lower border is an inscription in Kiswahili written in the Roman script: MWEMBE TAYARI “The mangoes are ready”.

This woman’s three-piece outfit has been tailored from kangas printed in Tanzania. The inscription NAJILEBI has two possible meanings in Kiswahili: ‘I can’t be deceived’ or ‘I’m showing off’.

Printed cloth (capulana)
British Museum
Woman’s wrap (capulana), woven of cotton, printed with a rectangle of orange and black spirals on a black background with orange polka dots at the centre. Printed with: NAJILEBI near the bottom centre, with a band of black teardrop shapes on an orange background around the edge.

Island cases: traders and global connections

Many textile traditions of eastern and southern Africa have global and cosmopolitan histories which include a potent mix of consumers, traders, missionaries, colonisers and manufacturers. Many kanga traders, such as the Kaderdina family in Mombasa and the late K.G.Peera in Dar Es Salaam, are of Indian heritage, though their trading links extend around the world. Tartan cloth was introduced by Scottish missionaries, soldiers and traders, and is now part of the ‘traditional’ dress of peoples as diverse as the Maasai of eastern Africa and the Zulu of South Africa. The visionary King Moshoeshoe I (about 1786–1870) of the Sotho people is thought to have been instrumental in assimilating traditions such as shweshwe, from its roots in Germany and Switzerland into the distinctly southern African textile it is today.

The production of shweshwe moved to South Africa in the late 1980s when the firm Da Gama bought rollers from ABC in Manchester, UK, and set up a printworks at King William’s Town. The ‘Three Cats’ trademark originated in Manchester in the 1930s, but Da Gama have now introduced some more distinctively African trademarks such as the ‘Three Leopards’.

Printed cloth (shweshwe)
British Museum
Woman’s cloth (shweshwe) made of cotton. A rectangle of white cotton printed with a blue scale-like pattern and repeating rows of white flower inside blue circles; a red label is attached with three cat heads and reads: Da Gama Textiles Three Cats INDIGO BLAUWDRUK.

As well as selling kanga, the Kaderdina family has traded many different types of cloth from its shop in Biashara Street, Mombasa. Red cloth has always been extremely popular and enjoys a wide market, from Maasai warriors to the mganga, or spirit healers, of eastern Africa.

Folded cloth
British Museum
A folded red cotton cloth (kaniki asliya), still in the packaging of KADERDINA’S in Mombasa, Kenya.

Maasai warriors from Kenya and Tanzania have a long tradition of wearing tartan patterned blankets, which have become part of the cultural heritage of the region. The logo which appears beneath the inscription on the central panel is of the two famous 17th-century Swahili side-blown horns, siwa, from Lamu and Pate Islands on the north coast of Kenya.

Tartan cloth
British Museum
Red, black and yellow woollen tartan textile with a central panel of white cotton upon which is embroidered with the image of two crossed, side-blown horns and the inscription: NATIONAL MUSEUMS OF KENYA

The history of kanga design

The familiar rectangular form of today’s kanga, with a continuous border, a central image or pattern, and an inscription in Kiswahili, has changed considerably from early prototypes. The first kangas were created in the late 19th century by sewing together six printed handkerchiefs, lenço, which the Portuguese had traded to eastern Africa for centuries. Soon hand-stamped versions on a single piece of cloth replaced the sewn lenço, and these in turn were superseded by factory-printed textiles, while all the time the form and patterning of kanga were evolving. The most successful designs and inscriptions are those which will appeal most to women, so manufacturers depend heavily on the advice of their female African customers.

Printed handkerchief from the Comoros Islands and of a type traded by the Portuguese along the eastern African coast since the 16th century.

Printed handkerchief (kanga)
(mid 19th century)
British Museum
A square panel of printed white cotton cloth with a continuous patterned border of alternate single and quadruple red-brown motifs, similar to ‘clubs’ on conventional playing cards, enclosing a central design in which the quadruple motif is repeated in rows, but in white against a red-brown background.

Early kangas were printed solely in red and/or black on a white ground; the inclusion of a Kiswahili proverb or saying written in Arabic script was a slightly later addition. This inscription roughly translates as: ‘My husband, I want a kanga which is my heart’s desire’.

Printed veil (kanga)
(early 20th century)
British Museum
Woman’s veil, woven with cotton. Features a rectangle of off-white cloth woven with a black and burgundy pattern. There is Arabic writing down the centre.


Early kangas were hand-stamped onto plain cotton sheeting using carved wooden blocks, sometimes with metal or fibre inserts. These blocks were either carved locally (the Swahili are renowned for their wood carving) or imported from India where a long tradition of hand-stamping textiles exists. The practice of hand-stamping continued for many years alongside imported factory-printed designs from Europe. During the Second World War (1939–45), when supplies of imported cloth dried up, hand-stamping became the sole means of printing kanga once again. In the late 1960s integrated textile mills opened in eastern Africa, though overseas production of kanga shifted to Japan, Pakistan and particularly India.

Early designs were hand-stamped onto cloth using wooden blocks to create textiles known as kanga za mera. The two groups of stamps are from Lamu Island, Kenya and from Zanzibar Island, Tanzania. Those from Lamu were hand-carved by Swahili craftsmen. Those from Zanzibar include metal and fibre inserts and were probably imported from India.


The ‘crosses and tangerine’ design which can be seen on the block from Lamu pictured here, was particularly used on kisutu, the wedding kanga. Note the ‘Paisley’ pattern on one of the blocks from Zanzibar became enormously popular because of its similarity to the shape of the cashew nut, which is a powerful symbol of wealth and fertility in eastern Africa.

Textile stamp
British Museum
A carved wooden block used for hand-printing one of the design panels of the traditional wedding kanga (kisutu). The so-called ‘tangerines and crosses’ design is peculiar to the kisutu wedding kanga.

Printing block
British Museum
A wooden block carved with the Kiswahili word MFUNGO “fasting” which would have been used for hand-printing the inscription on a kanga.

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