AN ANCIENT AND RESILIENT TRADITION
From its position on the horn of East Africa, Ethiopia has been a crossroads of trade and cultural exchange for millennia. This history of influence and development has been deeply imbedded in their iconic handwoven cotton cloth both as catalyst for its development and the subject of the history they hold. Although some accounts claim the nation to be the ‘cradle of cotton’, it is now widely accepted that the crop which grows abundantly across the lower elevations of the nation was introduced by Arab merchants around the 1st century AD. The cultivation and processing of cotton has played a fundamental role in the socio-economic life of Ethiopia, as marker of culture, record of history and the production of livelihood.
Following the narrative common throughout the continent, the introduction of religion and its imposed sensibilities of modesty stimulated the adoption of cloth as attire resulting in the initial proliferation of handloom weaving in the region. The iconic Ethiopian traditional textiles are plain white gauzy hand woven cloths most commonly referred to as Shamma. These were originally worn only by religious leaders and the upperclass and woven by weavers both Muslims and Falashas (Ethiopian Jewish) who lived nomadic lifestyles, traveling between the homes of noblemen on whose verandas they would set up their looms. The cloths served to function not only as tools for modesty, but as signifiers of the societies complex structures of hierarchy and class. Later, the practice was adopted broadly across the nation and handloom became a ubiquitously practiced domestic activity and handloom cotton the national dress for both day to day attire as well as for venerated ceremonial and religious application.
The Shamma is the most iconic example of Ethiopian handloom, and refers to a collection of mostly gauzy white cloth worn as shawls or wraps which are woven and worn across much of the country by both the christian and muslim populations for daily use and religious occasions. Some other examples are the Gabi, which is a thicker wrap used at night and in the colder months by both women and men to ward off the chills, the Kuta, a male’s thin gauzy shawl worn in warmer periods, and the netela, a larger female version sometimes decorated with metallic thread tibeb designs. Yardage is often commonly woven and sewn into garments such as the Kemis, the traditional long womens’ dress.
For centuries cotton was cultivated on a small scale, such that all processing would take place within the domestic spaces of the village and involve many members of the community. The cotton would be ginned and spun using a drop spindle by the women who would also perform many of the auxiliary activities such as cleaning, finishing, fringing and seamstress-ing among others. The weaving itself was a strictly male activity, the knowledge of which would be passed down from father to son. The pit loom is the most common form of loom with many still being used widely across the country. These looms share striking resemblance to primitive Indian looms, another major cultural influence which traces back through early trade passages. A throw shuttle was used on these simple two shaft looms which limited the width of the cloth to the arm span of the weaver. The strips would then be sewn together along the selvedge to form a wider cloth if desired. Although many of the practices remain mostly unchanged, many weavers choose to use mechanically spun cones of yarn from large centralized ginning plants across the country which have been implemented for farmers to take their cotton for processing on a larger scale. While this thread is preferable as a warp thread due to its improved strength and regularity, hand spun cotton often remains to be preferred for weft threads because of its characteristically soft and natural aesthetic nature
Circa 1898 a decorative multicolored border design known as ‘tibeb’ was introduced to the traditionally plain white textiles. The previously simple single colour design which sometimes adorned the edge was replaced by the multicolor tibeb which quickly became a standout identifier and defining feature which remains to be synonymous with textiles from the region. The Tibeb is woven using an extra weft thread of either local cotton naturally dyed or in imported silk or wool brought from the east by merchants. These natural fibers have mostly been replaced by acrylic and rayon ‘art silk’ threads which are colored using modern dyes. These dyes stimulated the elaboration of the designs and were preferable for their longer lifespan. Generally the design features a combination of the national palette of red, yellow, green and black on a white cloth. The combinations of colour and variation of design serves to function as an acute identifier of regional specificity. Furthermore ancient mythologies and philosophies are referenced through the embedding of symbols, such as the venerated coptic cross, in the design.
In the 19th century the handloom practices of many african countries were devastated by the colonial project. Local markets were flooded with a proliferation of cheaper mass produced cloths, mostly woven industrially in Manchester using indian cotton, at a price point which traditional weavers were not able to compete with. During this era Ethiopia managed to retain their autonomy and although the market remains to be bombarded with mass produced imported cloth, now from the east, they have retained symbolic autonomy through an enduring local demand for their own cloth, a marker of cultural identity whose value to the community can not be replaced.
Cotton and its weaving has long held a central role in the Ethiopian economy. There are currently estimated to be over 200,000 + hand loom weavers in Ethiopia and despite the strong cultivation, the demand for cloth has exceeded the local supply leading to an import of yarn being supplied mostly from Kutch in the western Indian state of Gujarat and from china. The majority of this demand is from the domestic market in which the textiles are valued highly both by rural communities who continue to use the cloths as day to day attire as well as amongst the urban elite among whom they are desired for special occasions as well as fashion statements (Gibson, 1998: 237). Additionally, a recent local and international boutique designer market has developed in which select weavers are able to access good profit. Although they are respected for their skill and supported by many urban initiatives, the majority of weavers retain a marginalized status in society. Practicing in the informal sector they often struggle financially and as an alternative, many of the younger generation are choosing to leave the trade in the hopes of more stable income, lured by the recent upsurge in the industrial textile sector.
The industrial textile sector in Ethiopia is currently burgeoning. Attracted by an abundance of affordable hydroelectric power, cheap labour and ‘flourishing industrial parks’ there has been a recent influx of foreign investment, resulting in major increases in the construction of factories and generating employment particularly valuable for technical university graduates. While the industrialization of this sector may appear to threaten the traditional practices, it is injecting the industry with experience, skills and technology and contributing significantly to the growth of the economy. The increased textile sector is further encouraging the expansion of cotton farming, an area in which government is focusing by improving and supporting practices and farmers across the public and private sectors as well as small scale farms. In an attempt to regulate this expansion there are currently attempts under process to facilitate the establishment of Organic cotton certification which in not currently available. The government is prioritizing the textile sector with incentives and policies aiming to position the country as a global textile hub.
The development strategy aims to maximize the potential of the sector in income growth and poverty reduction. While this model typically runs the risk of centering on mass industrialization and expansion of large scale farm operations due to foreign investment interests, the Ethiopian government seems to be approaching the development in a vertically integrated manner, with focus spread between international and domestic market across all scales.
The Ethiopian tradition of cotton handloom weaving has proven its resilient nature from its ancient roots. Through the centuries these textiles have served to symbolically and materially document many changes. Unlike many other traditional weaving practices, a continued market demand has sustained cultural relevance and value seeming to position itself firmly not merely for perseverance, but for a potential to thrive long into the future.
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