Traditional West African fabrics are inspiring young designers

Steeped in tradition, these vibrant crafted textiles are making an impact in fashion and interiors

west african fabric
Zoe Murphy

Traditionally, the production of bògòlanfini was a shared affair. Malian men would weave the cotton cloth on narrow looms and women would dye it with mud that had been fermented in clay pots for up to a year. Hence the name: bògòlanfini when translated literally from Bambara means ‘mud cloth’.

It is also one of dozens of textiles native to West Africa, a region encompassing 17 different countries and only a little smaller than the mainland United States. Others include kente, a woven cloth from Ghana, and khasa, strip-woven woollen textiles made by the nomadic Fulani people.

west african fabrics
Duro Olowu’s ‘Amos’ collection
Luis Monteiro
west african fabric
Dar Leone’s ‘Dalton’ chair
Dar Leone

There is also adire, a kind of indigo resist-dyeing perfected by Yoruba women in southwestern Nigeria; and in Igboland (the southeastern part of the country), akwete, a handwoven textile often made from combinations of cotton, sisal and raffia. The latter features distinctive combinations of stripes and abstract motifs – although hundreds are known, only a select few are traditionally deployed on an individual piece.

As you might expect, the survival of such intricate and distinctive textile traditions has been turbulent. Colonial powers, including the UK and Netherlands, flooded the region with cheap, factory-produced textiles in the mid-19th century, stifling home-grown production.

Adire cloth, by contrast, experienced something of a renaissance in the early 20th century, as dyers experimented with the glut of new cheap European fabrics at their disposal and attracted buyers from across the region.

Today, it is not only the skill and history of such textiles that enthral designers and makers, but also colour combinations that feel fresh and unexpected, as well as the scope they offer for reinterpretation and embellishment.

west african fabrics
A pouf by Bespoke Binny 
Bespoke Binny
west african fabrics
Earthy hues from Ade Dehye
Darrin Baldridge

In Nigeria, Lisa Folawiyo combines ankara and adire fabrics to create embroidered cocktail dresses and coordinating trouser suits in riotous combinations. In London, recent collections by Nigerian-born Duro Olowu featured handpainted stripes and prints reminiscent of resist-dyeing in shades of rich russet, yellow, sky blue and green.

A similarly colourful joie de vivre clearly influences Eva Sonaike, a German-born home-textiles designer of Nigerian descent.

After a career as a fashion journalist, she launched her eponymous brand in London, drawing on both sides of her heritage to create fabrics, poufs, cushions and lampshades in joyful and generous mixes of hue and print.

Even the more subdued mud cloth has found recent admirers. After spending time living in Ghana, California native Akintunde Ahmad launched Ade Dehye, a brand that combines Ghanaian textiles – most prominently bògòlanfini – with a relaxed streetwear aesthetic.

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