The Fabrics of East Africa

A Response to “Market Demand Rises For East African Fabric Kitenge + Trending Styles”

I must address an article on that got me thinking- ‘How much do people know about East African fabrics? The article titled Market Demand Rises For East African Fabric Kitenge + Trending Styles sought to highlight the beauty and popularity of East African fabrics and proceeded to elaborate on this by including pictures of albeit beautiful fabrics but most of them not East African.

There is a lot to be appreciated about the fabrics of East Africa, there’s no disputing that. To simply lump together fabrics from other parts of the continent and deem them East African is however a terrible misrepresentation. The history is far too rich, and significance too deep to be ignored. So I decided to leave a comment expressing just that! You can see my comment below:

Hi! I love that you are highlighting and showing appreciation for the East African fabrics. However, I must point out that the pictures used to show examples of Kitenge are misleading as you have used an array of West African fabrics such as the Kente, and Ankara. Kitenge is a general name given to Afrocentric printed fabrics. There are fabrics that are common in the East African region such as the Kanga, Kikoy, Leso, and even the Maasai Shuka. These fabrics are steeped in a rich history that would have made a better and informative article for your readers.

In order to restore balance, I decided to write an article of my own to highlight some of the fabrics of East Africa.

Maasai Shuka

One doesn’t need to look far to find the blue and red checkered cloth associated with the Maasai tribe of Kenya and Tanzania. The fabric that has evolved to include different colors and designs, now even graces the catwalks of fashion Meccas of the world. It is believed amongst the Maasai that the red color wards off lions. Whether there’s truth to that or not, there is no denying that the bold squares elicits bravery even for the faintest of hearts.


Worn primarily by women along the eastern coast of Africa, the Leso (Kenya) or Kanga (Tanzania) is a must have for every household. These pieces of cloth are ubiquitous in homes due to their multi functionality. Whether used as towels, child carriers, shawl s and wraps they have an almost mystical ability to conform to your needs.

The Leso has three characteristics that distinguish it from other types of fabics:

1. Border (or Pindo) and Center (Mji)

The four borders of the leso are usually of a different pattern than the center and may sometimes even vary in color.

2. Say What?

If the cloth doesn’t have a saying then that is not a leso. This is a defining characteristic that gives the leso its uniqueness. From messages of condolence to marriage blessings, the leso is like a personal billboard that gives the wearer the freedom to pass a message without uttering a single word.

3. Two of a Kind

Lesos are always sold in pairs called “gora”. Most of the time, users will cut the cloth down the middle and fold in the edges to prevent fraying.

Kikoy/ Kikoi

Found mainly along the Kenyan coast, this piece of fabric was primarily worn by men. Today, just a walk on any beach will yield different stylings and uses it. Whether it’s sarongs, satchel bags, or head scarfs, the kikoy lends its simple beauty with its colorful stripes.

Ethiopian Tilet

I added this last one because of it simplistic beauty. The tilet is the fringe pattern found on much of the traditional Ethiopian linen. It symbolizes the different nations or clans of Ethiopia and can also indicate ones social standing.

you can find the article here

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