Materials & Techniques

Embroidery in African Textiles

By definition, embroidery is the addition of ornament using a needle and thread or yarn to decorate and enrich cloth and fabrics. Embroidery is not a technique indigenous to Africa, but spread with Islamic culture from North Africa southward beginning in the 10th century. Elaborately embroidered robes worn by Muslim men of authority were impressive and worthy of emulation. While not all people exposed to Islam converted, most adopted the embroidered out-sized robes that can be considered masculine “power dressing.” [2006.43]

Where it has been practiced, embroidery is usually men’s work. Often, male Koranic scholars draw geometric designs for the male embroiderers to sew by hand or with a sewing machine on handwoven or factory-made cloth used to make the robe.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Add to, Take Away: Artistry and Innovation in African Textiles, Gallery text, 2014.

Related Multimedia

Gallery talk by Dr. Roslyn Walker, Senior Curator of the Arts of Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific and The Margaret McDermott Curator of African Art, DMA

Fun Facts

  • Embroidery can be created with beads or other materials in addition to thread.