I recently read a rather astonishing history book. A quick glance at the cover doesn’t promise much. Rather undistinguished, looking as if no effort was expended in its design. Typeset using the barest of basics: a serifed Times Roman-y font in orange on a black background, placed between some supremely clashable bands of red. The orange text declares a rather prosaic title: Cloth in West African History, Colleen E. Kriger. But if you are interested in textiles, it is a sublime read. Admittedly you do have to also kind of like textiles, and you do also need to like detail. If you meet both these criteria, then you will find within lots of little knobs of information to chew and marvel over.
The front cover includes an old, blurry photograph of women lined up against a wall, holding up samples of finished indigo cloth. In most chapters, Ms Kriger selects a newish fashioned cloth, and then traces its history back, as far back as possible. She attempts to write for the general reader, rather than a history buff. What is rather marvellous is how she unpicks detail from physical evidence about warp and weft, about twists of yarn and shreds of fabric from archaeological digs. She melds this with anecdotes from historical accounts, adds in her own hand drawn diagrams, and sprinkles it all with a great, deep, profound interest in the people who created the textiles – the people generally undocumented in the tales of textile creation and use across West Africa. She uses written and oral narrative to examine the central role of cloth in West Africa, from the court of Dahomey in 1772 to the Oba of Lagos, for example.
You can’t expect the contents to keep you at the edge of your seat all the way through, but the author offers some interesting perspectives. At a time when British colonial powers in West Africa attempted to undermine the local cotton weaving industry in order to export all the cotton production to Europe for manufacturing. Yet, she says, the industry survived because “Working for the luxury markets was an attractive strategy because the textiles produced for those markets offered wider profit margins and could not be successfully imitated by overseas companies.” The weavers specialised, and retained their economic advantage. A tactic that could also apply today?
The words ‘textile’ and ‘text’ have the same Latin root, meaning “that which is woven”. When colleagues asked her to what extent textiles can be “read”, the author suggested that textiles offer an oral narrative, a story. Textiles are used by humankind everywhere, a fundamental commodity that has been traded since antiquity. This book helps to place the West African textile tradition within the historical canon, unfolding a story that continues to this day.