Date of this Version
Crosscurrents: Land, Labor, and the Port. Textile Society of America's 15th Biennial Symposium. Savannah. GA. October 19-23. 2016.
The cloth-dyers of West Africa are known to produce indigo textiles which reputation needs no making. These various productions, often times centuries old, have been continuously exposed to the turmoil of a variety of external events which have often made them very fragile or, on the other hand, have brought about prosperity. Among those events, let us cite the caravan trade across the Sahara and the Sahel, the establishment of trading posts by the Europeans on the Atlantic Coast, the Senegal River and the Niger, the slave trade, the development of small indigo factories, colonization by the English, the French and the Portuguese, the chemical and industrial revolutions, local and regional politics, world conflicts, the 1929 economic crash, independences, climate changes, development programs and technical assistance, fashion globalization, terrorism, tourism, international fairs, etc. While, in some areas, indigo dyeing has simply vanished and is no more than a cherished memory which the elderly women talk about while preserving carefully old indigo wrappers for special occasions, in other areas indigo cloth-dyeing seems to be prospering since the late 1980s, due to a renewed interest in the Western world for natural products (locally grown organic cotton, natural dyes, handmade crafts) and, an appeal for “ethnic” products which has prompted a revival of the “traditional” indigo dyeing craft in West Africa. Textile and fashion designers, NGOs and private businesses have been instrumental in promoting the all-natural process. They have diversified the indigo textile production to meet Western tastes and high level standards: the motifs and decors of indigo wrappers are now offered in a range of linen, upholstery fabrics, curtains, western style clothes, etc. The demand for this type of production has allowed the resurgence of a “tradition” in indigo cloth-dyeing, saving it from disappearance, and has created some employment. However, the overall impact, so far, remains limited to a few areas. At the same time, early this XXI century, two major series of events have had a negative impact on the production of indigo textiles in West Africa, i.e. the economic penetration of the market of African textiles by China and, the wave of terror and insurgences led by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria. The Chinese manufacture synthetic textiles reproducing a variety of traditional wrappers, including indigo wrappers. These counterfeit wrappers are put for sale in the region where they are usually produced, directly competing with the local cloth-dyers. Despite the low quality of these synthetic wrappers, many customers prefer to spend less than go for the more expensive locally produced cotton wrappers. As a result, indigo cloth-dyers have seen their sales decelerate and while some are struggling to stay in business, others have already given up. For the last few years, Northern Nigeria has been off limit to tourists and buyers who purchased the famous Hausa indigo cloth from Kano, a town re-known for centuries in all of West Africa for its indigo production. In addition, Nigeria’s government policies regarding import of textiles have put local production at a disadvantage. As a result, sales have gone way down and many Kano cloth-dyers have had to leave their ground pits and find another occupation. But, let us now focus on the productions of two specific types of women garments, the Fouta-Djallon wrapper and the melhafa from Mauritania and see how they have evolved since the XIX century. This paper draws upon research conducted in Guinea and Mauritania as well as on bibliographical research.