Where did the African people get their clothing from before the use of cloth?
Since ancient times, the hides of wild and domesticated animals have been part of the important treasure trove of materials used by people all-over the world, and the that apply also to Africa. Above all, leather is one of the oldest materials used in Africa, in the making of clothing and utensils by nomadic, hunting and pastoral African tribes.
The number of different kinds of wild animals whose hides had been used in the making of shields is so great that it appears impossible to list them all. Naturally, hides with the largest possible size, stiffness and thickness (buffalo, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, elephant, giraffe etc) were particularly preferred for the making of shields and include the hides of zebra, gnu and the back of various kinds of antelope, however, by contrast the extremely strong cuirass of a crocodile or the hide of its soft underbelly were only sporadically used by African people due to the many superstitions relating to crocodiles.
The skins of antelopes and small animals and snakes, were used more for the making of clothes and other house hold products. Products made from the skin of animals have been manufactured through innumerable different processes, from the partial or full tanning of hides, to hardened hides for armour and shields, or leather was tanned as soft as cloth for clothing and blankets.
The skin and tegmen [an inner lining] of individual animals also had to be prepared and treated in the most different ways. The skin of higher animals is divided into an outer layer (epidermis), middle layer (dermis, corium) and bottom layer (sub-cutis).
Only the isolated corium was used in many regions for clothing garments, as it was easier to tan the traditional way, and much softer to use.
Since a fresh hide consists mainly of protein and, to a large degree, of water, the goal of tanning is to turn bundles of fibre into a material able to maintain its elasticity. They were necessarily treated in three stages: cleaning, tanning and currying.
Directly after skinning, the remains of fat and muscle were cleaned from the outer and bottom layers. This was usually done with a sharp-edged scraper. By keeping the fresh skins in a hole dug in the earth (technical expression: sweating hides) was supposed to accelerate in the most simple manner, the rotting away of the fat layer (breaking down the protein). Scraping and removing the hair could immediately follow, while the skin was still fresh and un-treated.
Many of the ethnic groups in South Africa employ similar methods in tanning their skins.
Sometimes a selected hide was submerged in a river and left overnight or longer to become saturated, and it was taken out the next morning to be washed and cleaned. Afterwards it was buried about 15 cm under the soil in a cattle pen, where it was to be softened by a combination of cattle urine and cattle walking over it.
It is also known that the Maasai placed their cowhides with the hairy side down in a shallow pit and covered them with damp sand, for four to five days.
Depending on which tanning agent is used, the distinction is made between 'fat tanning' and 'vegetable tanning'.
In 'fat tanning' (oil tanning). Most Africans rubbed milk butter, brain or palm oil into the hide. This was regarded as the simplest process. The epidermis and sub-cutis were removed by scraping and sanding and the liquefied brain oil, butter or fat was then worked into the dermis, after which the skins were sometimes smoked to make it more weather resistant. Often combination-tanning methods were also employed.
Sap and extracts from barks and various plants were used in 'vegetable tanning' (bark tanning) mostly in North Africa, and by some tribes in Southern Africa including the San people.
One of the 'vegetable tanning' plants used in Southern Africa, is called the Eland-bean (Elephantorhiza elephantina). The underground rhizomes / roots, are dug up and used in rural areas for dyeing and tanning. In the Kalahari desert region, the bark is removed and root pounded to pulp, with a little water added. The paste is then smeared on the hide to help in making it soft. By continuous rubbing the skin over tree branch, or by hand till the skin is soft.
Currying (technical term for making a hide pliable) encompasses, on the other hand, various operations such as repeatedly rubbing in fat, intermediate drying and further skilled processes. Among the Swazi people in South Africa, the semi-finished skin is beaten on rocks till it is soft; the 'Ndebele', however, use wooden hammers to make it pliable.
One of the further processes employed by the Maasai people, was the stretching of hides on a wooden rack, where it remained until dried and stone hard. At the beginning of this stage, wood handles and rim hoops were also attached. One widespread method in Africa was pegging hides to the ground to dry and to keep its shape or to stretch it.
Some-times stones and pegs were arranged on the ground underneath the still-wet hides to form handle hollows or burls and bulges, once the hide has dried.