Ethiopian Traditional fabrics hang by a thread

From traditional small producers who sell their products in shops in Shiro Meda to international fashion designers, the traditions and patterns associated with Ethiopian traditional garments are making their mark all over the world. However, between fluctuating foreign exchange rates, and the unstable cotton market, some producers and sellers are finding themselves crowded out of the market. The age-old techniques of weaving traditional clothing are competing with modern machine woven textiles, cheaper imported fabrics, and a shrinking number of people willing to learn the craft.  EBR’s Menna Asrat reports.

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Yeshihareg Sisay, in her mid-30s, sits inside her traditional clothing shop located near Balderas condominium complex in Yeka District, waiting for customers. Unlike previous in years, when she managed to earn a decent income, the shelves at her shop are almost empty. And the mannequins display just a few samples of traditional clothing.

Before reaching retail shops, traditional clothes pass through many steps.  Yeshihareg buys most of her raw materials from weavers operating in Shiro Meda, an area designated as ‘the weaving district’ in Addis Ababa. Dir, mag, and t’ilet are the three raw materials essential to produce traditional clothes. Dir is a traditionally produced warp while mag is a weft that is spun by weavers. T’ilet, on the other hand, is made from factory-produced coloured threads used for decorative borders. Except for the decorative borders (t’ilet), dir, and mag—also known as cotton yarn—are produced from cotton using traditional methods.

Weavers operating in areas like Shiro Meda produce handmade clothes using these inputs and sell them to retailers or directly to buyers. However, the prices of traditionally produced cultural clothing are becoming expensive, due to the rise in price of raw materials.

“There are four or five people who are involved in the process of producing traditional cloth,” explains Bizuayehu Gashaw, the owner of Hahu Tibeb, a traditional garment shop located in Bole District. “If there is a price increase at any level of the supply chain, it will be reflected in the final product.”

For instance, the price of dir(made from cotton)doubled when compared with the previous year.  “The type of dir known as ‘Menen’ costs around ETB40 now for one packet,” Wondimu Mersha, a weaver operating in Shiro Meda explains. “However, it has climbed as high as ETB70 and 80 in the past five months.”

Dir and mag have seen a rapid price increase since the rainy season last September. This in turn has caused a rise in the price of the textiles Yeshihareg buys, from ETB1500 for about four and a half meters (enough to make one full dress) to ETB4000 in just the last six months.

Fluctuating prices and rising operations costs are affecting everyone in the supply chain including handloom weavers, garment makers and sellers.“I have switched to another business,” a frustrated Yeshihareg tells EBR. “It’s too difficult to stay in the traditional clothing business. When the prices of traditionally made raw materials skyrocketed, I switched to factory-made fabric, which cost much less than handmade textiles,” Yeshihareg recalls. “Although factory-made fabric is much cheaper, its quality is poor and people don’t like it.”

Tewodros Zerihun is a senior weaving expert at the Federal Micro and Small Enterprises Development Agency (FeMSEDA), which provides market support and training to artisans. He says even factories produce very low amounts of factory-made threads and yarns like dir and mag. “Instead, they focus on producing thread to be exported.”

According to Tewodros, the main reason for this is the low level of cotton production in the country. So far, smallholder farms have been the primary producers of cotton in Ethiopia. Recently, the government began implementing strategies to help boost local production. In 2017, a National Cotton Development Strategy was introduced, laying out a plan to increase cotton yields and bolster the sector. However, cotton is still unstable.

Another emerging trend is the factory-made, imported, ready-made garments that are printed with designs that look like Ethiopian traditional embroidery. These are already being seen on the local market.

“These fabrics are mainly chiffon printed with traditional designs,” explains a vendor of imported fabrics, who asked to remain anonymous. “They sell, but most people buy them as a novelty, not because they are replacing traditional clothes.”

It is not only traditionally made dir and mag that are being threatened with replacement by manufactured textiles and imported fabrics. Coloured threads used for textiles such as saba and workezebo are almost exclusively all imported from abroad.

For example, thread manufactured using only cotton is one of the 22 types of threads imported. In 2016, Ethiopia imported 21,814 kilograms of coloured cotton thread at a cost of USD21,677, according to the information obtained from the Ethiopian Customs and Revenue Authority (ERCA). The main source of this type of thread is China, which was responsible for 99Pct of the imported volume and 98Pct of the value of imports in 2016.

There are around 170 importers currently engaged in bringing coloured threads into the country at the end of the 2016/17, according to ERCA, up from 155 the previous year.

Other countries have experienced downswings in their traditional weaving industries. Traditional cottage cloth businesses in West Africa, which similarly to Ethiopia, were vibrant endeavours in rural and urban areas, are gradually fading.

Countries such as Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and Mali are known for their colourful traditional clothes. Many individuals and firms who hand print their own designs onto bleached cotton fabrics also known as “tie-dye” or “batik,” used to exist in Ghana.

In fact, the traditional textiles industry accounted for close to 25Pct of total handicraft manufacturing employment a decade ago, according to a study entitled The Textiles and Clothing Industry in Ghana published by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

However, due to growing imports of raw materials and finished fabrics from South-East Asia, traditional artisans have been crowded out of local production. Currently, inexpensive, imported clothes bearing the patent designs, logos, and earmarks of local cottage industries dominate the Ghanaian market.

The Central Statistical Agency (CSA)in Ethiopia categorizes the traditional weaving industry as a cottage (handicraft) manufacturing industry. According to the survey conducted by the CSA in 2015, 18,199 establishments are engaged in traditional weaving industry employing 246,062 individuals. This number accounts for 15Pct of the total cottage industries operating in Ethiopia.

“The small scale weavers are not being protected,” Tewodros says. “Large companies produce t-shirts and caps for their events with printed or sticker patterns that look like traditionally woven and embroidered ones. The ones who suffer are the small producers.”

According to Tewodros, the solution to this is to empower weavers and producers to unionise. “In other countries, weavers have powerful unions that are involved in governmental decisions. Here, weavers are at risk of being taken advantage of by larger designers and retailers who buy products for a few hundred birr and sell their clothes for thousands,” he explains.

There are many factors that discourage new weavers. Traditionally family members train weavers in the intricate art from childhood. Hailu Tolole is one such weaver. A 60-year-old artisan, Hailu is both a weaver and a retailer operating in Shiro Meda, where he has a small shop.“You can’t study weaving and go to school at the same time. This is a skill that takes up all your time,” explains Hailu.

Increased rural education rates leave young would-be artisans little time to learn how to weave. Furthermore, fewer parents are willing to let them learn. “This craft has a limited lifespan,” Hailu says. “You don’t have a good retirement plan. Once you start weaving, this is all you can do for the rest of your life.”

Tewodros agrees with Hailu. “It takes a particular kind of person to become a weaver,” he says. “Many people do not do it because it takes a creative mind.”

Most weavers end up like Hailu’s father, the weaver who taught him the trade; he lost his eyesight as he got older and had to return to the rural town he came from. “If there’s an option to be educated and have a secure job, no one would choose this,” Hailu explains.

While traditional garment producers are finding it challenging to keep up with changes, demand is still high for handmade clothes.

Abayneh Woldey is a garment-maker in Shiro Meda. He designs and produces garments, as well as selling his work through his shop in the compound. “Social media is raising the demand for new designs,” he explains. “People see things that other people wear on Facebook and bring them in for us to recreate. There is an even greater demand now.”

Strengthening the sector is within the reach of the government, says Tewodros. “This is a cultural treasure on par with Lalibela, or Axum,” he says. “We work very hard in this country to protect those. We should be working just as hard to protect and preserve true, traditional garment making as well.”

6th Year . April 16  – May 15 2018 . No.60

Menna Asrat

Deputy Editor-inChief

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