Shopping for African Fabric

There are no shopping malls in third-world countries, only open air markets that stand on locations that have attracted vendors for centuries. Some of these markets might cover a couple of city blocks – if the town had blocks. Vendors in these open air stalls sell everything: vegetables, automobile parts, washing soap, bottled water, used clothing and shoes, propane and fabric. Packed red clay pathways wind from one stall to the next. The lucky ones have a corrugated tin roof and some type of door to shut and lock at sundown. In more rural places, market spaces may be marked by the edge of a blanket spread on the earth. Others have tables where vendors bring their wares and set up each morning.

Fabric vendors in the central African town of Kribi, Cameroon, are in one particular section of the city’s open air market. They offer as wide a variety of sewing products as the owner can find to sell: fabrics, zippers, needles, several shades of thread, some scissors, a few trims, and fewer buttons. No patterns. No rotary cutters. No rulers. Fabrics are sold in precut six meter lengths so there is no need for a cutting table.

Well established seamstresses have shops along the pathways, too. The typical product of this shop is a comfortable African dress – similar to a Hawaiian muumuu. A full color poster hangs on the wall where dress styles are shown, and the buyer selects the type of neckline, sleeve style and length. These are sewn by young women using foot-powered treadle sewing machines because there is no electricity.

Pathways through the Kribi market are unpredictable. Red clay surfaces with rocks worn smooth by years of foot traffic weave left and right. It is a good idea to have a local guide along to help you find your way back out. Drainage ditches are lined with cement blocks to channel rain runoff away from the stalls. They may – or may not – have weathered wooden boards to cover the ditch yielding a steep step here and there, facilitating movement through the market. After a rainstorm the paths remain roughly the same, but sharp edged rocks may have worked to the surface and the red clay is slick as can be. All of this can be hazardous to the health of a foreign-fabric-seeker whose eyes are seeking the patterns and colors of fabulous African fabric. There is no mistaking it when a fabric seller has been found. Brightly printed fabric is displayed row upon row, wall to wall, floor to ceiling.

In Africa, fabric is not sold from a bolt on a carefully arranged shelf. It is not rolled and stashed in a bin, or folded selvedge to selvedge and sold by the yard. Most of the time fabric is cut into 6 meter lengths, folded over and over to a width of about 12 inches wide – raw edges neatly tucked inside. Fabrics gleam in the sunlight because they’ve been coated and pressed smooth to show a shiny finish just for that moment (and it is gone after the first washing).

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Open Air Market - Fabric Shopping

Fabrics are draped over bamboo poles that rest upon long nails pounded into a 4”x4” corner post. There are generally 4-5 poles stacked vertically on each wall and it is unusual to see more than one copy of each design on display (though there may be several more underneath) to maximize display space. In a 10’ x 10’ stand there may be a hundred or more cuts of fabric on display and as many more in boxes on the floor. Vendors order boxes of assorted prints, hang them up and hope they will sell.

Many, though certainly not all, cuts of fabric have a label of authentication glued to one side and a carefully affixed sticker sealing the selvage edges. What these labels prove is the subject of much discussion. They reflect a labeling technique used for the last 150 years. Additional information is may be printed on the selvage of each piece. The information printed is a fabric’s symbol of quality and it is common to leave this information displayed on the outside of a finished garment.

The gold standard of African fabric is actually created in Holland. Vlisco has been printing African fabric with a genuine batik process since 1848. The company proudly imprints fabric with its trade-marked name “Vlisco Guaranteed Veritable Wax Hollindais Real Dutch Fabric” and logo along the selvage about every 20”.

Most of the rest are Vlisco “like” fabrics printed around the African continent (Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Ivory Coast, South Africa), in India and China. Fabric printers understand the importance of the selvage information and try to include as many of the status-words as they can: “Valsco” “ Real Wax,””London wax”, “quail Wax”, “Hollandais” “Veritable” “Dutch Wax” “Wax Print” “Woodins Hollandaise” Wax Hollandaise Fabric” “Binta Wax”, “Super SoSo”, “Obama”, “Batik” “Authentic African Wax” “Kente cloth” “African fabric Dutch Real Wax Block Print Hollandais” or an unlimited combination of these words. (I have seen them all.) Manufacturers may have copyright privileges in their home country, but these privileges are not well respected around the world.

If you shop only by looking at color or design, you may be very surprised at what you get. Synthetic fibers have crept into this traditionally cotton world. The only way to tell for sure is to look closely at the weave, listen to the sounds when rubbing the fabric between your fingers, and do a fabric test on a small scrap. (See fabric testing)

At first glance the fabrics for sale appear to be of similar quality. Most have a glossy polished cotton-like finish. But this has little to do with the origin of the fibers. It is very important to touch it and feel the “hand” of the fabrics because the content and quality vary greatly. I know this because I have bought them all – hoping for high quality cotton – and finding just about everything else. Cost of the fabric is not relevant unless you are shopping for real batiks. But most marketplace sellers in Africa cannot afford to stock this. What you find in a market shop is commonly called “African Fancy” fabric. And, those words are almost never printed on the selvage. (Trying to talk a vendor out of a small scrap to test for fabric content is another story.)

Synthetic fibers have entered African markets. Unfortunately, you can find them in any country quite easily now. Many carry the important words printed on the selvage as if they are a “real wax” print when clearly they would have melted if they’d been put through a batik process. These fabrics are easily recognized by a stiff loose weave. When you crunch it in your hand it makes a “rustling” sound. After washing this fabric is soft and pliable.

Quilters work primarily with cotton fibers, as synthetic fibers will melt under the heat needed to press cotton. Once washed synthetic fibers won’t hold a flat seam and poorly constructed fabrics will shred unless every seam is finished.

It is easy to sympathize with African women and understand why synthetics have gained popularity. Few homes have running water the way western homes do. Lucky is the woman who has a well and water that can be hand pumped indoors to a sink. Most women carry water long distances before being able to wash clothing. Synthetic fibers are good because they wash easily, dry quickly and require no ironing. Colors in clothing dried in intense summer sun do not bleach out. While westerners may not find polyester a good option to wear in tropical heat and humidity, this aspect does not bother many Africans who are used to the climate.

Once you have determined the fiber content of a fabric to be cotton, it may still be hard to determine which fabric is the best quality. Some fabrics are pumped full of starch and stabilizers during the printing process and feel good to the touch. But, after washing, it may be so limp it is difficult to figure out a way to use it. Iron-on stabilizers help, but cannot make up for a fabric’s loose weave and do not allow it to drape well.

Other cotton fabrics are rich in color, have a nice shine, a sturdy feel to it before washing, and come out of the dryer ready to make into something that will stand the test of time and washing machines. Quality often depends on the country, size of the city and location of the market. Buyers must appreciate that fabrics sold in a third world country are going to be those at the lowest end of the quality scale – so that women who live there can afford buy them. There will still be some excellent fabrics available. It is up to the buyer to know the difference and pay accordingly.

When you go to a market be sure to observe the savvy traveler’s advice shopping: Don’t show any foreign currency, credit cards or your passport. Visit a cash machine in advance of your shopping trip. In Cameroon there is usually a soldier with an automatic weapon sitting next to the door. Separate the cash into several parts of your wallet or bag. Wear the bag under a vest or shirt if possible or at least, well trapped under your arm. Fanny-packs go in front of the body. Don’t pull out large amounts of local cash or purchase so much that you attract a lot of attention. This can make you and the vendor targets for trouble. When paying for your purchases remove your paper money discretely. If you only have a large bill and the shop keeper does not have change, be prepared to spend more money in their shop.

When shopping with a large group, split up into small groups of 2-3 travelers per local guide or interpreter, so you can bargain for your merchandise. If you are with a large tour group stopping at a roadside shop, understand that your guide/interpreter may be receiving a cut of the sales. If the asking prices are very reasonable you are likely to feel you’ve found a bargain even if you’ve paid twice the local rate. If you compare prices with others in your group and you paid the most, don’t feel bad – just consider your donation an assist to the local economy. Bring your own bag to the market because some countries are banning the traditional plastic bag, and make it a big one because it is easy to want to buy everything.

Shops are generally clean and fabric is in cellophane bags, but you can never tell where fabrics may have been stored. So, I keep a large, sealable plastic bag back at the hotel and put every fabric purchase inside, and reseal it. When it is time to pack up, I seal the bag with wide tape. Of all things to worry about, bed bugs have been the only critters that accompanied me home.

My suitcases live in the garage or in a shed after I get home. (I am lucky that it gets cold in the winter and that’s where the bags stay until it has been below zero for a couple of days.) Remove and wash everything washable (whether you wore it or not) when you get home. Open your sealed fabric bag over the washing machine and use warm water, a good soap, and dry at the hottest temperature the material will allow to kill any unintended guest bugs. An extra rinse may also be a good idea to rid cloth of excessive dyes. And understand the beautiful fabric gloss will also be gone, too. But the fabric that comes from they dryer will bring great memories for a long time to come.

2012 - Taming Large Prints and Other African Fabrics