Wednesday, August 28, 2013

African Fabrics and the Zambia

Upon finding out this interior designer was moving to Africa, so many American friends and family immediately exclaimed, “Oh!  The fabrics!  You will find so many amazing fabrics!”

I am still looking.

Africa is notorious for its colorful eye-popping textile designs, often called chitenge.  The problem is, they are not in my country.  It has been a fascinating topic of conversation for me as I have slowly come to realize that a number of factors are at play here.

1.  Our country, a post-colonial British country, has a population with a Westernized fashion sense. This has placed African fashions in the backseat.  Advertisements, media, and images of beauty reflect the Western world over other design styles.  And the richer a person is the more Westernized they typically dress here, so thus the demand bends away from the traditional.

2. The American foreign aid we see and feel most often in this country comes in the form of giant containers of clothing.  Most have slight defects.  And many, I assume are surplus, as oodles and oodles are from big suppliers like Gap, Polo, American Eagle, etc. These have made Western styles more accessible to lower income populations in our country, further encouraging a move away from the traditional dress.

3. Our country used to have a fabulous cotton industry, but no longer.  Mills have closed down or moved to other countries within the last 10 years for a number of political and agricultural reasons related to local issues.  In addition, it has been difficult for them to compete with lower-priced Asian items.

4. As in so many other countries, the textiles from China are the most affordable and therefore most prevalently found in fabric stores.  China has a clear influence on our country, mostly in the form of financial and import relationships.  A man just stopped my husband in the market this weekend after hearing his American accent.  He wanted to barter for anything American-made we might have, “because everything else is low quality Chinese stuff,” he said.  I’m not making a political argument for or against Chinese textiles, but rather just stating that the goods here are dominantly Chinese, as are the most affordable textiles.  Indeed most textile mills in the world are now located on the Asian continent.

Most of the African-styled fabrics that do make their way to us have been brought across the border from Mozambique, South Africa, or Kenya, in small expensive amounts.   These pieces are usually thin cotton blends.  Therefore, upholstering in a thick African fabric is almost impossible unless one approaches a local maker to (expensively) custom-weave a piece of fabric.

The “small expensive amounts” mentioned above that are usually thin cotton blends can be seen most often on purses and bags, or on a special piece of clothing worn by women in our country.  My housekeeper laughed as she talked about these pieces of clothing recently, “They are called Zambias, but most are from Mozambique!”


Zambias are a piece of clothing that aren't technically clothing at all. A Zambia is a piece of African fabric, unsewn and typically 2 meters in length.  It is then tied around the body in a number of ways, though most often as a skirt.  It is always tied over clothing, not used as a solitary piece.  “A Zambia,” I am told by a Shona friend, “is good for adding Africa to a person. But secretly, we also use them often to hide stains or worn areas that mark our clothing underneath.”

I recently had to meet with a woman in a small village outside of our city.  Minutes before leaving my house I realized that I had never even considered whether a gift was necessary. I hurriedly approached my housekeeper. “A Zambia is traditional,” she said.  “But how fat is this woman?!”

No idea.  I sighed as I cut my four-meter African table cloth in half while my housekeeper watched and nodded.  “You have to,” she had said.

Yes. I did.  My hostess was delighted.  And now I have a Zambia, too!