Date of this Version
Published in Textiles and Politics: Textile Society of America 13th Biennial Symposium Proceedings, Washington, DC, September 18- September 22, 2012.
This paper considers the political dimensions of the western Indian Ocean trade in handwoven "Muscat cloth". Today little-known or remembered, these striped and checked wrappers and turbans were woven in silk and cotton by pitloom weavers in Oman's port towns for both local use and export. Especially in the 19th century, a large quantity was shipped to East Africa. While the volume of this trade may have been small relative to imports of cottons from India, Europe and America, evidence shows that the qualitative impact of Muscat cloth on East African dress, arts, ritual and economy was significant and enduring. This paper explores the political dimensions to this trade, namely the strategies and roles of the Sultan in channeling imports and exports through Zanzibar; the use of Muscat cloth as political insignia for governors of Swahili towns; its general association with Muslim elites, and the use of the cloth by local African rulers. Ultimately, the political, economic and religious meanings of the cloth are difficult to disentangle and together account for the popularity of the cloth.