Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Textile Society of America 2014 Biennial Symposium Proceedings: New Directions: Examining the Past, Creating the Future, Los Angeles, California, September 10–14, 2014,


Copyright 2014 by the author(s).


A number of recent exhibitions and publications have discussed the pan-African production and use of factory print cotton cloth, for example, ‘Social Fabric. African Textiles Today’ at the British Museum (14 February -21 April 2013). However, there has been no substantive published research on the subject of the production and use of this cloth in Malawi. Historically cotton has been an important crop in Malawi, whilst imported cotton cloth a hugely significant trade commodity. The paper will contextualise the current trend in factory made cloth (chitenje pl. zitenje) within the longer run history of cotton in the country and will draw on a range of sources from Dr David Livingstone’s early documentation in the 1860s to contemporary published work on Malawian history. The paper will place the chitenje in the contexts of theoretical perspectives on clothing and identity and African economic history. Affordable and socially binding across economic groups, factory printed cloth is an important and highly visible element of Malawian material culture. The paper will be based on research carried out by the author in Malawi in 2013 and continued in 2014. It will discuss production history and to what extent patronage influences continuity and innovation of pattern and design, and also investigates the social dynamics of this cloth. Within the myriad of decorative patterned cloth produced is a range of cloth which have a particular function to inform, advertise, and educate, and commemorate. The paper will present specific examples of cloth commissioned by different interest groups including political parties, religious organisations and NGOs to consider how this type of cloth is used in the construction of identity in daily Malawian life.