A History of African Patterns and Designs

According to fashion, African patterns and designs are exotic or tribal. However, anyone who takes the time to study the issue will see that there is a lot more to it than just an aesthetic. Each tribe, culture and subgroup has their own unique approach when it comes to fashion. The level of complexity also changes from one group to another as well as from one century to another within a given location. For example, in Senegalese culture there is a lot of emphasis on good manners: dressing up nicely and keeping good company are seen as indicators of respectability. For this reason, clothes are therefore often tailored and made in light fabrics like cotton or silk with detailed embroidery of animal motifs such as the peacock or gazelle. On the other hand, some South African tribe’s people cover themselves with paint and feathers to enhance their appearance; they believe that this makes them stronger and more powerful.

A brief history of African patterns

The history of African textile patterns and designs goes back many hundreds of years. While some designs might have originated on the continent, others may have been inspired by trade with other parts of the world. However, the history of African clothing itself is much more recent. For most of human history, clothing wasn’t a particularly big deal. People wore loincloths or tunics; they didn’t need to be fashionable, because they were not used to signal status. Only with the rise of agriculture did people start to settle down and be able to invest in expensive items such as clothing. The first African garments were therefore mostly inspired by Arabian fashion.

Geometric patterns

The most common geometric pattern is the chequered pattern, which is believed to have originated in Ethiopia and Somalia more than 2,000 years ago. It is present in most of the African subcontinent and has survived the test of time. The geometric patterns found in African textiles were inspired by wall art, which was produced by painting on a wall or other large surfaces. They were later transformed into woven fabrics, which became the most elaborate form of decoration. The most common colours for geometric patterns are white, red, yellow, black and blue. However, the colours used to make geometric patterns may also be a combination of these colours. The geometric patterns that were used on fabrics were inspired by wall art that was produced by painting on a wall or other large surfaces. They were later transformed into woven fabrics, which became the most elaborate form of decoration.

Floral patterns

The oldest known examples of African floral patterns have been found in the fabrics of ancient Egypt and Nubia. It is believed that this pattern was brought to Africa from Asia around 2,000 years ago. It was mainly used for clothes and headdresses, but it was also used for fabric wall decorations. The floral patterns used to make fabric are inspired by the natural world, such as the surrounding vegetation or animals. African floral patterns usually have bright colours and are often made up of red, green, yellow and blue. The most common floral patterns found in African textiles are the lotus, tree of life and birds in flight. The lotus is a water lily that has a flower that can be seen in a variety of colours, while the tree of life is popular in West Africa. The birds-in-flight pattern is often seen in North Africa.

Animal patterns

Animal-based patterns are some of the oldest textile motifs used in Africa. It is believed that they were first used in ancient Egypt and were later adopted by the rest of the continent. Animal-based patterns were used to make clothes and could be found in fabrics as well as wall decorations. The most common animals that are used to make animal-based patterns are lions and leopards. However, the animals used for animal-based patterns may vary from region to region. The most common animal-based patterns found in African textiles are spotted or striped patterns. The spotted patterns are created by combining geometric and floral patterns, while the striped patterns are created by combining geometric and animal-based patterns.


Although historically, African patterns and designs have been mainly used for fabrics, nowadays they are used also on accessories like bags, jewellery and footwear. In recent years, African patterns have become trendy and have been adopted by many high-end fashion houses. They have been mostly used as accessories, such as bags and jewellery, but more recently, they have been used to make the outfits themselves more African. The main benefit of using African patterns in fashion is their versatility. African patterns are complex and contain a variety of colours. They can be used either as a single pattern or combined with other patterns since they easily blend with other types of patterns.