The word dashiki has roots in Nigerian Yoruba and Hausa culture and is generally translated as man's shirt. This loose, hot-weather-friendly garment is easy to sew and can express African culture, African solidarity, or respect for folk crafts throughout the world. Adapted to a variety of fabrics, dashikis take on the greatest meaning when made with African textiles, especially kente cloth. Making a dashiki can involve making both a general cultural statement or a specific one, depending on the ethical and historical symbols incorporated into the cloth.
Measure your fabric in the traditional African way: You need double the length from your shoulders to just above your knees. You need a width from the crook of one elbow to the other. (This translates roughly into 2 yards long by 30 to 36 inches wide, depending on your body.) You will be cutting some of the fabric away to make the body of your shirt. Make certain that your fabric is wide enough at the stomach and hips that you can cut away 6 inches from each side without your shirt becoming too tight.
Decide on the style of your neckline when choosing fabric. A dashiki can have a simple slit for a neckline, a slit with a notch in the front or a V-neck. Depending on your sewing abilities, all necklines can be faced in plain fabric, bound with bias tape, or created with a simple, small-rolled hem. Some printed fabrics for dashikis have print that resembles elaborate embroidery around a V-neck, enabling you to just cut out the neckline and hem it without further decoration.
Fold your fabric (with the cut ends together) and lay it on a flat surface. Cut into fabric on each side to make a rough rectangle: This is the cut to make sleeves. Begin your rectangle 9 to 10 inches below the top fold in your fabric, with a 6-inch cut parallel to the fold. Complete your rectangle by cutting down to the end of the fabric for the body of your shirt. Cut a similar rectangle on the other side of your fabric. You now have a rough T shape, with plenty of room for your arms and body.
Cut out your neckline from the fold at the top of the fabric. If you are making a simple slit or slit with a notch, try on the neckline, to make sure you have enough room for your head and will not strain the fabric when pulling it on and off.
Finish your neckline with facing, tape or a small rolled seam.
Decide on whether you wish to hem the rest of your dashiki. Some makers do, others do not. The point of this garment design is to keep your body cool; not hemming sleeves or the bottom keeps fabric more responsive to light breezes.
Decide on further decoration. If you like to embroider, the neckline of your dashiki is a perfect place to show off your talent. A plain-fabric dashiki could be ornamented with cutouts of animals and other symbols. As was the case of the original creators, this simple shirt is a canvas on which you can express ideas (see Warnings, kente cloth, below).
If you prefer, you can make a simple T pattern for cutting out your dashiki, rather than working directly on the cloth. Use kraft or butcher paper. The simplest way to make the pattern is to lie on the paper with your arms stretched out. You can go back over the silhouette and make allowances for sleeves and body width. When in doubt, cut looser rather than tighter; a dashiki is meant to fit loosely and underarm seams can be strained by too tight a fit.
If you are using African fabric, especially kente cloth or kente prints, remember that you are wearing cultural symbols that mean a great deal to their creators and members of their society even today. Take the time, if possible, to learn a little bit about African weaving motifs. A confirmed bachelor, for example, may not want a fabric that says "two heads are always better than one." Constantly squabbling family members are poor candidates for a "family is our greatest strength" weave. African fabrics often have a story to tell. Enjoy learning about this beautiful tradition.