For African art in general, the internal content, that which links it to a specific cultural context, is very important, quite apart from aesthetic qualities. This is especially true of African textiles which have had in the past, as indeed they have today, an exceptional significance as a means of communication, information and mutual association within particular communities.
Indispensable for understanding the meaning and importance of textile in African culture is an acquaintance with the diverse and abundant symbols to be found on it. These are expressed pictorially, and are almost always closely connected with handed-down oral tradition. That which is characteristic of African art in general – the relationship between the verbal and visual arts – is especially important for art on textiles, because they often take the place of the written word and convey messages of importance for an individual, family, or larger social unit. Among some peoples, this funciton is quite explicit. Thus, for example, among the Dogon people, the name for woven material means the spoken word. In their way of thinking, to be naked, unclothed, is the same as being without speech.
The most important material used in West Africa for textile making is cotton, although other materials of plant and animal origin are also used. These can be raffia and other plant fibers, wool and silk. Animal skins and furs and tree bark are materials which have been used much like textiles to make articles of clothing.
Cotton textiles are the most common in Africa and cotton clothes the most comfortable for the prevailing climate. The savannas of West Africa were a leading center of cotton growing and weaving in the period corresponding to Europe’s Middle Ages. Although there is little reliable information for prior to the 11th century, it is believed that cotton was already being used for a variety of cloths.
It is traditional for cotton in West Africa to be woven on narrow horizontal looms, with a frame not exceeding 30 centimeters in width. Most often, longs strips of from 10 to 15 centimeters width are woven, although a three-centimeter width is not unusual.
Decorative traditions for textiles include a design worked into a strip during weaving and, typically, fabrics are decorated when finished by dying, painting, stamp printing, appliqué or embroidery. The symbolism of color is essential in the various types of ornamentation.