Woven Together: The Art of African Weaving

Weaving has formed an integral part of African culture for thousands of years. From baskets and bags to fishing nets and furniture, the art of weaving has transformed communities, and these coveted skills are passed down from generation to generation.

Time-consuming and complex, each woven item has a story to tell, of long-standing African traditions – a timeless skill traditionally perfected by women. Using available local resources such as reeds, grass, raffia or palm fibres, African tribes have been developing this art form with styles, patterns, and shapes unique to each community’s location, culture, and needs.

African tribes typically use four different weaving techniques, coiling, plaiting, twining, or checkerboard. Before the actual weaving can commence, plant fibres are cleaned, stripped, and sometimes dyed before being woven into their specific shapes and patterns. Basket and textile weaving techniques have evolved from an integral and practical part of the community to a highly expressive form of contemporary art.

Tonga Baskets, Zambia

The BaTonga of Zimbabwe and Southern Zambia are famous for their basket weaving skills as well as their geometric designs. An ilala palm is woven into a characteristic square to begin and then radiates outwards to create dramatic patterns, traditionally in the shape of a spider web or lightning. The palm fibres are dyed with tree bark, and the baskets are finished with a distinctive herringbone pattern rim.

A basket of 30cm takes roughly two weeks to complete, and these winnowing baskets are used to separate grain from the chaff, or other debris from the stored grain. In an area prone to drought and poverty, Tonga women are the entrepreneurs of their villages, bringing much-needed additional income to their families.

Makenge Baskets, Zambia

Hand-woven from the roots of the Makenge bush, these baskets are traditionally handed down to new brides from their mothers or in-laws to be passed down in the future to the next generation.

ach basket takes up to two weeks to create and carries the stories of its owners, as they are passed down from generation to generation. In a time-consuming process, the Makenge roots are extracted, peeled, boiled and dyed, and dried. After at least a day of drying, the fibres are then rewetted in the weaving process; as the women spend several days creating each intricate basket.

These baskets are a remarkable testament to the skilful weaving abilities of the Barotsi and Losi tribe women.

Buhera Gourd, Zimbabwe

With a history of fine artisans, Zimbabwe has a great tradition of artistic basket weaving. The Buhera district in Zimbabwe has a rich plant diversity, and these baskets are woven out of ilala palm leaves. Buhera baskets, or gourds, boast an organic and engaging shape and are traditionally used to store and carry grain.

In a modern home, they make practical plant holders, or contemporary décor items when painted, and add contrast and character to any space.

Fishing Baskets, Zambia

Both men and women use these baskets to catch fish, which are then either sun-dried and smoked, or dried and salted. Communities near lakes, rivers, and swamps use these baskets for their livelihood and then sell their catch around the country.

Using the twining method of weaving, two sets of strips are interlaced, with one set twisted around its base strips. This is beautifully illustrated in the creation of these fishing baskets.

Malawi Chairs, Malawi

Malawi chairs allow the natural beauty of Malawi basketry to be adapted for modern living, while still showcasing the complexities of this cultural tradition.

Malawi chairs are handmade using a hand-carved blue gum tree frame. Rattan strips are intricately woven into patterns along the sides of the chairs and the seat. Rather than using glue, these skilled artisans secure the strips with special knots. To create a curved barrel back, they temporarily insert spare parts from cars and bicycles that guide them as they work. 

Each chair takes 10 days to make, and many sustainability projects support and empower this gifted community which has a severe lack of electricity in rural areas.

African Textiles

The history of African textiles spans centuries in time, documenting the ancestral traditions of the African people. Each textile tells a story about the culture and history of its people and, in some cases can be used as a historical document. The colour of the cloth and material used is a representation of specific qualities and attributes.

African textile artisans create patterns on textiles using various techniques including weaving, dyeing, stamping, painting, embroidery and appliqué. African textile patterns may be plain or extremely intricate, consisting of geometric forms or figures such as animals and birds.

Many ancient weaving and textile techniques, patterns and styles are still used today and remain an essential part of African culture. If we’ve piqued your interest, visit our store and browse our collection of woven beauties and handcrafted textiles from across Africa.

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