African-Inspired Sewing: Textiles and Techniques

The fabric and clothing of Africa is widely recognised as some of the most beautiful and colourful in the world.

African ladies in fashionThe diversity of cultures, climates, and natural features make for a stunning array of styles and textiles. If you can’t find handmade African crafts near you, there are plenty of methods and patterns you can use to create an African-inspired piece that is accurate, respectful, and beautiful too.

Dyeing 

Traditional African cloth is dyed in two main ways: tie dying and reserve dying. The first is quite common, and involves tying a blank garment up in unique patterns and then pouring dye over the bundles or dipping the garment into the dye.

Reserve dyeing, similar to batik dyeing, is where wax or other waterproof substances are applied to the fabric to create a pattern of voids that appear when the dye is applied. Sourcing the materials for either of these styles can be quite simple, as they’re commonly sold at craft stores.

Sewing

One of the more meaningful elements of African fashion is the application of proverbs, inspirational or religious phrases, or even riddles to the edges of fabric as part of the decorative process.

This is most common in a garment called a kanga, which is a wrapped shawl that forms an entire outfit. Embroidering text onto the edge of a shawl will lend both an aesthetic and spiritual depth, and a shawl or scarf with an embroidered phrase makes a fun project and a great gift.

Dressing

The process of wrapping garments onto the body is a unique African art form that varies by region, but carries great significance. Some outfits are simply two swathes of fabric wrapped as a skirt and shawl. If you’re looking for inspiration, try using colourful scarves or shawls and wrapping them artfully over a simple, all black outfit. You can highlight the colours of the fabric without risking any wind-related mishaps or discomfort.

Headwear

Head wraps and hats in Africa vary from religiously significant to artistic as a way to demonstrate status. While wearing a turban or a headscarf might be insensitive if not from your culture, there are still beautiful ways to incorporate the tradition into your projects.

Many forms of women’s headwear in Africa are designed to frame the face and bring attention to the décolletage. If you have scraps of fabric lying around, they can be woven into a headband or hair scarf that you can use to the same end. Not only will the bright colours accentuate the tones of your hair, skin, and eyes, but that’s an easy way to liven up an outfit that’s both simple and elegant.

Styling

Styling an outfit can be tricky, especially when you’re unfamiliar with the shapes and cuts of certain pieces. African traditional clothing is frequently made in the style of a tunic, sometimes paired with a skirt or trousers.

Many women’s fashions emphasize the hips and cleavage, and cling to the body in a flattering way. Square necklines, strong shoulders, and flowing hems are also features that are common in African dress. If you’re sewing a garment, or altering one to fit better, try incorporating one of these style elements. They’re not as common outside of Africa, but are a tasteful and interesting way to make an outfit more unique.

There are many ways to incorporate African crafting into your personal projects and style, whether it’s a small addition to an outfit, or an entire look.

Understanding the beautiful fabrics, patterns, and meaning behind the fashions is a complicated process, but plenty of resources exist to help you create and wear unique and authentic pieces that are true to their origins.

About Jackie Edwards

I’m an editor and writer, who spent over a decade and a half training and working in art and design with a special love for fashion and couture. After learning to sew and create garments from scratch using many kinds of materials, I've gone on to research and write about the history of women’s fashion in previous centuries.