Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



In Approaching Textiles, Varying Viewpoints: Proceedings of the Seventh Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2000


Copyright © 2000 by the author(s).


The production and trade of handwoven textiles were well established in West Africa when the Europeans arrived in the fifteenth century; however, the use of handwoven cloth, except for ceremonial purposes, was soon replaced by imported manufactured cloth. The volume of less expensive fabric from Europe influenced this change, which coincided with the Islamic tradition of voluminous gowns, the aesthetic qualities of cloth created by foreign technology, and the alteration of the economic structure as a result of colonialism. Although textile manufacturing is now established to some degree in West African countries in the forty years since the countries' independence, the major textile product in The Gambia is patterning imported cloth, using resist methods of tie and dye, or drawing or stamping techniques as described by Haddy Prom in Part I of our presentation. These resist-patterns became popular in the u.s. when introduced by returning Peace Corps volunteers and African-American tourists from newly independent African nations. Although not as visible as in the sixties and seventies, African textiles and clothing have remained popular with those African Americans, who want to identify their ethnic heritage and among the designers of high fashion who look to Africa for inspiration in recurring cycles.

The focus of this presentation, howe~er, examines handcrafted clothing as a model for economic development advocated by the Kenyan economist, Ali Mazrui (1980), among others, who encouraged low tech, culturally relevant enterprises that will make a respectable contribution to the gross national product of developing countries while providing a sustainable income to the participants. Mazrui's concept of the social benefits of private enterprise and the opportunity to buy textiles for pleasure and profit really appealed to me. My mother and I cofounded our company, Originally Africa, after our first trip to Africa in 1987 and informally sold the surplus purchases from our travel and additional inventory procured from contacts made during subsequent visits.