Among around three million designs registered for copyright and held at The National Archives in Kew, South West London—the archive of UK government records—are thousands of textile samples made for consumers in Africa. These are exceptional in that they include examples from the major UK manufacturers and merchants exporting to West Africa and East Africa from the late nineteenth century to the trade’s decline in the mid- to late 20th century. Our research indicates that this is the most comprehensive public archive of such textiles in the world, and one that offers an extraordinary resource for researchers. In this article, we demonstrate how these textiles are material evidence of a hugely important trade that had an impact on life both in Africa and the UK.
The article discusses the historical context of these archived textiles and the characteristics that distinguish them from examples held in other collections and archives. Drawing upon a 2016 pilot project that assessed the scope and significance of these textile samples, the article evaluates their potential as a resource for design historians. The pilot began an ongoing research project that aims to produce a comprehensive study of factory-printed UK textiles exported to Africa.