Clothing in Iron Age Africa
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Iron Age African Clothing

An Egyptian painting of Nubians (from modern Ethiopia),
about 1300 BC
thin, light yellow cloth
Egyptian linen from a mummy

By about 2500 BC, some people in Africa began to weave their cloth instead of pounding it, which makes more flexible, comfortable clothing. The Egyptians learned from their West Asian neighbors how to weave linen, and very quickly professional weavers were doing most of the weaving, and most people bought cloth already made. Under the Egyptians, and then the Carthaginians, and the Romans, most people in North Africa and East Africa bought their clothes instead of making them themselves.

Because cloth was expensive to make, people didn't want to cut it and waste any.

man wearing a belted tunic and carrying vegetables
A North African man carrying
vegetables (Carthage, ca. 300 AD,
now in Bardo museum)

Like people in Europe and Asia at this time, most people wore the cloth wrapped around themselves, rather than cutting it and sewing it to fit them the way we usually do. Men who were working outside wore just a loincloth (like a bathing suit), wrapped around their waists and tied in various ways.

Women, and men who were more dressed up, wore a long piece of cloth wrapped around them in various ways, and sometimes covering their heads. Sometimes they used one long piece for a skirt, and another for a shawl covering their shoulders and chests. In Egypt, however, people wove plain linen tunics, like long t-shirts, and wore their clothes more shaped to their bodies. Soon people in Meroe, south of Egypt, also wore these tunics, which often had fancy pleating as you can see in the picture.

woman wearing a complicated skirt
Woman wearing raffia skirt

The idea of weaving gradually spread from Egypt to other parts of Africa - almost immediately to Meroe, south of Egypt, and across North Africa, and then more gradually down the coast of East Africa, and west to West Africa. People in West Africa were weaving local grasses or strips of palm leaves into cloth by the 800s AD. By the 1100s AD people were using looms there too. Some people wove linen, others wove other kinds of grass like jute or leaves like raffia.

embroidery on linen of a man on a horse
Coptic Egyptian embroidery - silk on linen

Around 500 AD, Egyptians got a new way to decorate clothes: the new Chinese invention of steel sewing needles. With these strong, sharp needles Egyptians began to do a lot of embroidery. Egyptian people embroidered scenes from Roman mosaics, from fresco paintings, and from Iranian carpet patterns. Often they illustrated scenes from the Bible, or from famous Greek or Roman stories.

Learn by doing: weaving
More about medieval African clothing

Bibliography and further reading about African clothing:

Traditional African Costumes Paper Dolls, by Yuko Green (1999).

African Girl and Boy Paper Dolls, by Yuko Green (1997).

African Textiles, by John Gillow (2003). Not for kids.

More about medieval African clothing
Ancient Egyptian Clothing home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 28 April, 2017