Because cloth was expensive to make, people didn’t want to cut it and waste any.
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. They often had fancy pleating as you can see in the first picture.
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.
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. Some people in Egypt decorated their clothes with this embroidery, but traders carried a lot of it on the Silk Road and sold it in Iran, India, and China.
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.