African quilt

January 22, 2011

This is one of my favourite quilts. I sewed it some years ago using African fabrics only. It is rather small (1m x 80 cm) and it is made with scraps of materials from various countries in West and Central Africa. A long road along the markets of  Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Congo.Most of its patterns are symbolic. These simple cotton fabrics are textile words. Those who know their language can read the social status, the affiliation to a particular brotherhood,  culture  or the area the materials were designed in and on what particular occasion.

This pattern  was printed on a traditional African dress called boubou. I was told it represented  jewelry (earring ?). The name of this piece of material is : “My husband is rich”. Obviously !

I could not find the designation for all patterns but thanks to a wonderful book (at the end of this post) there are a few I can share with you.

The name of this striking design is “My rival´s eye”… The crosses underneath look like “The turtle doves´feet” (tunfan sen).

This small figure could be the one of  a farmer. The pattern surrounding him (arrow) is called  “The back of the sickle blade” (wosoko). A farmer wanted his effective sickle to be remembered !

“Guinea fowls” running away from the photographer 😉 A design often represented on local fabrics, guinea fowls being very present in African villages and along the roads – unfortunately for them 😦

Women  grinding millet, a daily work in African villages.

Warriors´ signs. On the left there is “The Brave´s Belt” (ce farin jala). A symbol of the belt a soldier or a warrior wears around his waist before setting off for battle. On the right, a mask or a shield.

“Of threads and words” could be the translation for this wonderful book featuring many precious pieces of clothing belonging to kings, heads of tribes, clans or areas of various cultures in West and Central Africa.  Sometimes  symbols have been sewed or weaved on bark or raffia clothing. These unique pieces have been also represented on more common sorts of materials. As on the cotton fabrics I collected here and there.

What I  cannot share with you here is the soft touch of the local cotton. A lot of  materials I used have been worn, washed on stones along a river or  in a pond, then dried in the  hot sun. The original colours have vanished a little but the cotton texture has sometimes become as soft as silk or muslin. So pleasant to sew and quilt !


20 Responses to “African quilt”

  1. Marie said

    Isa, I absolutely love this post. Seeing the fabrics and understanding the symbolic
    meaning is so interesting to me. I am really in to symbols : )
    The quilt is stunning. I can see why it is your favorite.
    I like imagining the women washing the fabric by a river or on stones
    because that is part of the “woven stories” in the cloth.

    • Marie, your words mean so much to me since you are a true inspiration for my own quilting. I love your artistic way of using symbols to express yourself or creating a story. You are right, most of these cloths have a woven story in them. Thank you Marie.

  2. Gerry said

    This is an absorbing post. We learn a lot about women’s lives by studying fabric and sewing and quilting. You’ve done a fine job of carrying us into the work and the place. You also made me think of a friend I haven’t seen in a dozen years, a wonderful textile artist named Arianne King-Comer. I think you would like to visit her site:

    • Hello Gerry ! I am so happy you enjoyed this post and shared your friend´s site. I just visited it, Arianne King-Comer is a great artist and person. I will try to find out more about her. Thanks a lot.

  3. Cindy said

    WOW Isa, this is just fantastic!

    • Hi Cindy ! Many thanks for your words. Surely you have seen some of these fabrics and more. They have always fascinated me and Africa is the place where I started learning quilting. Memories…

  4. The quilt is gorgeous and I really enjoyed the history of the fabrics.

  5. Intlxpatr said

    I love this post! Your quilt is wonderful, a treasure, and I love the explanations you have dug up for the representations; it gives so much more meaning to the quilt!

    Two things from my time in North Africa come to mind. The jewelry you thought might be an earring, might also be fibulae, you hardly see them anymore, pieces often of silver, decorative, made to hold up the sifsari (I think there is a different name as the long, one piece cloth dress wound around) in two places near the shoulders.

    My rival’s eye could possibly refer to ‘the evil eye’. I wonder, do you see many objects with five dangles, or any hands with five fingers?

    Wonderful post!

    • I was so happy to read your words ! Thanks a lot for your visit. Your quilting is always inspiring and I was wondering what you were creating these days. You may well be right about the jewelry being a fibulae rather than an earring. I remember having seen Rwandese and Burundi women wearing toga like gowns with some sort of silver jewelry fixed on one shoulder. The other shoulder was bare. They looked imperial ! I am sorry, I do not understand what you mean about “dangles” but the rival´s eye does look like the evil eye indeed !

  6. Truels said

    This quilt is amazing – SO beautiful, Isa! You are a great artist in quilts! And I enjoyed reading about the materials tto.

  7. Isa, this is fascinating. Have you heard about the use of quilt patterns to deliver coded messages to help black slaves find their way to safety in Nova Scotia Canada from the United States (around the time of the American Civil War) using the ‘Underground Railway’?

    • Yes, I have heard about this “Underground Railway”. About particular quilts put on a clothesline in front of a farm or house or on a fence; they were also meant to tell the black slaves if the place was safe or not for them to stop. I find this fascinating too. I am so glad you mentioned this, flandrumhill. Thanks a lot. Quilts were more than blankets, they also expressed the life and feelings or the quilter at a special time.

  8. shoreacres said

    And we mustn’t forget the men! The “country cloths” I brought back from Liberia were woven in strips by the men, sewn together and then stamped with the symbolic and decorative patterns – even including the guinea fowl!

    And in Ethiopia, the marvelous crewel-like embroidery that hardly can be distinguised one side from the other also was done by the men. Women, too, perhaps, but I saw only the men working the designs.

    The mention of silver reminds me – some day I must gather the courage to try and write about my most cherished memento of West and North Africa – a clutch of silver bracelets gathered here and there, each with it’s own story. What memories you’ve raised for me!

    • What an interesting comment, Linda, thank you. You are quite right, men whether seamsters/tailors, designers or weavers, are very present in the creation of fabrics in Africa. This is a craft that is mostly (but not only) made by men especially the designs. At least in the countries that I lived in or visited.

      It would be so nice to hear about your clutch of silver bracelets gathered in Africa. In Central Africa I have seen more golden jewelry whereas in Sub-Saharan countries silver is more frequent, especially amongst the Tuareg groups. I also cherish those beautifully handcrafted jewelry.

  9. Janice said

    It’s beautiful Isa, and all the more interesting for the information about the symbolism. Thank you!

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