Fabric Adventures in Africa Part II + Exciting SHWS Gallery Opening Announcement

A rhino in Kenya’s Lake Nakuru National Park photographed by William Rounds. Indeed not fabric, but inspiration for the wonderful prints and colors you’ll see in this post.

As you’ll recall in my last post, Paula Benjaminson who lives Libreville, Gabon shared some of her fabric shopping experiences in the markets of West Africa. Today she’ll give us a perspective on the types of fabrics that are made in Africa. The post is yours Paula . . . uh-oh, forgot a couple of details . . . make sure you scroll all the way to the bottom for the name of the winner of Paula’s bundle of African prints and for the details of our special exhibit of African quilts in the See How We Sew Gallery opening this coming Friday.

Great Textiles

The African continent has a long history of producing high-quality, museum-worthy textiles.  If you spend just ten seconds looking up kente cloth, bogolanfini (mud cloth), or kuba cloth on Google Images, you’ll be dazzled by the beauty and variety of just these first three examples of African textiles, and there are many, many more.  As a quilter, though, you probably wouldn’t find yourself cutting up those prints for a Nine-Patch block. I mostly use West African wax prints, batiks, and hand-dyes in my quilts, all of which are well suited for quilting, although the colors and scale of the prints might be a bit of an adjustment.

Wax Prints

Wax prints came to the continent through the efforts of European colonizing nations to sell their machine-made imitations of Indonesian batiks in the African market.  Flaws in the process of copying the batik style, which made these fabrics unappealing in Indonesia, became must-have variations that were very popular in African countries.  Excessive cracking of the resist (resin in place of wax), and problems registering secondary colors in the printing process which led to slight overlapping of colors, are considered hallmarks of this fabric style. Despite printing advances which could easily eliminate these “problems,” popular demand requires that wax prints retain these quirky bits of personality.  Nowadays these fabrics are made in several countries, including cheaper copies made in China for the African market.  Some of my favorites are from Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Ghana.

One of the most fun things about these prints is that their scale is often so large that you hate to cut them up because the 11-inch tall giraffe, 10-inch tall women, or 15-inch tall Korhogo figures will be lost!


African batiks are made in basically the same way as Indonesian batiks, with a pattern laid on cloth with wax and then over dyed, but the African patterns used are quite different. Geometric designs are more common than florals or botanicals, and the wax is most often applied using stamps carved by the artist from gourds or wood as opposed to the intricate metal tjaps traditionally used in Indonesia.

Many of my favorite batiks are made in Ghana, a country with an incredibly rich textile tradition. The Adinkra symbols used in many of the Ghanaian batiks carry messages weighted with cultural history. The yellow symbol on the green background below is the symbol Nyame dua meaning the altar or the tree of God, representing God’s presence and protection. The green symbol on the ochre background below is the symbol Gye Nyame meaning “except God,” representing the omnipotence and immortality of God.


Hand Dyes

If you ask me, hand-dyed African fabrics are pretty much irresistible. You might already be familiar with traditional (and gorgeous) indigo fabrics, which are made from white cloth tied up with hundreds of tiny stitches to help resist the blue dye.

Other fabrics have been dyed using patterned brocade as a base. So, in addition to the design from the dye, there is also an underlying pattern from the weave visible when the cloth is turned to catch the light. This gives the fabric a depth that rewards closer look. In these two photos, you can see the pattern of the brocade under the dye: 

Sometimes these beautiful hand-dyed pieces are sold paired with coordinating solid brocades, ready to be used as a skirt or trim for a garment made with the more flamboyant partner.

I also find home decor fabrics here that I like—check out the photo of my favorites. A company called Woodin in Ivory Coast is the manufacturer. They make excellent bags as you can see!

Many of these bold, striking, and dynamic fabrics are routinely used in clothing, which leads to a big problem for me. I often see someone wearing a shirt or a dress that is made from a fabric that I love and it’s a struggle to resist hitting the brakes, pulling over, and begging these unsuspecting people to sell me their clothing! I should be required to put a sign on my car that says “Warning: fabriholic in vehicle—-your clothing is at risk!” I admit that I have serious fabric envy whenever I go out. I’m not looking for a ten-step program though—who wants to be cured?  It’s better to go shopping!


I’ll leave you with a couple photos of quilts made with African fabrics.  The first is a quilt my students and I made in Ouagadougou for a raffle, which features motifs fussy cut from a delicious pile of prints.

This second quilt, “Susuwe,” is mine. I combined many African fabrics with focus fabrics I printed using hand-carved wooden blocks from Namibia.  In many ways, this quilt is really a collaboration between me and my friends who carve these fantastic pieces of art. Paula B.

Giveaway Winner and Gallery Opening

The winner of the giveaway is Laurie Spear who has a special charitable connection to  a village in Zimbabwe. Congratulations Laurie! My blogging sister Christie is “sweetening the pot” by adding her Block Party pattern to Laurie’s prize. You’ll have to check my Friday post to see why I asked Christie for her contribution. Turns out that Block Party is a fantastic design for a scrappy African quilt.

Paula and I had so much fun collaborating on this series of posts on African fabric that we decided to celebrate with an exhibition of quilts made in Africa, sewn with African prints, or designed with African themes in the See How We Sew Gallery.

Join us on Friday! 

31 thoughts on “Fabric Adventures in Africa Part II + Exciting SHWS Gallery Opening Announcement

  1. Love the fabrics and quilts! I’ve just returned from my second trip to Uganda teaching women in a rural village to sew bags, among other things. I returned home with a traditional gomesi made for me by my friends, and a pile of fabric I bought from several towns. Love the people, love the colourful fabric and love Africa! Thank you for sharing your knowledge, it makes the fabric even more alive.


    1. How wonderful Sydny–posting the African series has really opened my eyes to the number of people who travel to the continent for personal reasons as well as charitable ones.


  2. THIS IS SO COOL!!!! THIS IS MY MOM!!!! I think someone really, REALLY smart (who maybe got that smartness from her mom?) suggested that you should write a book… sounds good to me!! 🙂


    1. Hey thanks Dolores! Paula and I had such fun collaborating on the African-themed posts and Gallery exhibit. I’m going through Paula withdrawal right now–she’s such fun to work with!


    1. Yeah, it’s fabulous. No pattern that I know of–it’s made in Africa. But, is there any chance you could get to PIQF in Santa Clara, CA–October 11 to 14? I’ve seen a vendor there who sells similar bags–could even be the same Woodin brand for all I know. Believe me, I’m stopping by when I go to PIQF. I’ve fancied the bags for several years now and I think I’ll finally buy one for myself.


      1. Alas, no PIQF for me. I’m in Massachusetts. Will visit my son in Cali (SF) in the spring…maybe there are fiber-related venues that happen then!


      2. Well there ya go–I’m glad to hear all is achievable with a Moda pattern + African fabric. BUT, there is a vendor plying the quilt show circuit with similar bags. I’m going to photograph them when I see them at PIQF!


      3. Many thanks for the clarification Paula–I think Deborah will be very happy and our readers as well, For me, it’s more a case of if I BUY one, I’ll post the photo!


    2. Hi Deborah,
      I’m so glad you like these great fabrics! I can help with where to get them, and how to find the pattern for the bag, too!
      My friend Dena Crain, a quilting teacher in Nairobi, Kenya, has a list of online sources of African fabrics on her blog, here: http://www.denacrain.com/blog/10-online-sources-for-african-fabrics/
      If you’re in Canada, you might want to look at http://www.kallistiquilts.com where Michelle Dunn has lots of great African fabrics!
      I made the large bag out of home dec fabrics made by Woodin, using a free pattern on the Moda website, which you can find here: http://www.unitednotions.com/fp_quick-sew-bag.pdf
      I hope this helps!!


  3. I really love the fabrics and the designs, makes me want to try some of my own. I was lucky enough to get some fabrics made with flour dying, from africa, at a local show. I am saving them for a special project.



    1. I’d love to see images of those fabrics, Debbie. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen flour-dyed fabric. Check out Michelle Dunn’s quilt in the Gallery tomorrow (9/28/12) and Cris Barry’s use of Christie’s “Block Party” pattern to see spectacular ways to use African prints and commercial quilt patterns.


      1. Hi Debbie,
        Do you mean that the fabrics are batiked using flour paste as the resist? This process is used quite frequently in Namibia, and produces great crackled effects!! I’d love to see your fabrics!


  4. Jennifer thank you so much for the great learning on African fabrics. Wonderful knowledge and inspiriation for my own quilting. Blogs are such a great source of adult education!


    1. Paula has certainly opened my eyes to the incredible variety of fabrics available in Africa. We’ve got a regional quilt show coming up this month in our area (PIQF) and there’s a vendor or two with African prints. Now I’ll be a much better informed shopper! In fact, they may even sell those Woodin bags that she loves.


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