Saturday, September 22, 2012

Fabric shopping in West Africa

Where I live in Guinea-Bissau, the fabric stores are few and far between (Read: there are none). That is, if you define “fabric store” as a business that sells apparel or quilting fabrics of the kind we are used to in Europe or America.  In our town, there’s no reliable electrical supply, so all the local tailors use foot-powered Singer machines that only have straight stitch. That means that sewing with knits is out of the question, something that obviously causes the demand for knits to be nil, which means nobody sells them. 
One of the great tailors of Gabu, working on a borrowed Singer while his buddies enjoy a cup of Warga, a local favorite tea with enough sugar to keep a soccer team hyped for a whole game. Just sayin'...

So what fabric CAN you find here? You can find African wax prints. In abundance!  Most women around here wear elaborate hand made dresses cut from these colorful, large printed fabrics. What’s interesting, too, is the way these fabrics are woven and sold. The print runs perpendicular to what I’m used to from fabric shopping in the North.  The width of the fabric is 43 inches or 110 cm, which is the average height of a wrap-around skirt. So if you wanted to make a wrap-around skirt (AKA “pano” in the local jargon), all you had to do was finish the side edges, preferably with a fancy ribbon, and sew some darts around the top edge, attach some ties, and voila! You have a skirt! Wrap-arounds are not normally hemmed around here, the selvedge is left on, and that’s how it keeps from raveling. 

Women at a wedding
The way it’s sold, too, is different. You can’t ask for any length of fabric you want, as it’s not sold from rolls or bolts. It is sold in lengths of 2 meters. Usually, a precut “package” is six meters of fabric, all in one length. You can sometime negotiate for just one “pano , or two meters, but it is generally frowned upon.  This is because, the sales person will then have a harder time sell the remaining two “panos” (or wrap-around skirts) to another customer. Most people have a whole outfit sewn from their three panos, including a wrap-around skirt and a fitted blouse, as well as a rectangle to use for head wear. What they do with the leftovers, I’m not sure, but I’d say “childrens’ clothing” is a good bet.  A lot of embellishing is used, and elaborate designs are made from satin bias tape and all kinds of colored lace ribbons and ric-rac. 
Me wearing a "pano" wrap around skirt with 

fancy trim

There are other kinds of fabrics available too, but so far, I’ve only seen them in very large quantities, so I’ve never purchased any myself. These are cotton fabrics with a kind of shiny surface that is used for fancy African clothing, both men’s and women’s. 

Now, if you’d like to sew with something more western-like, you’d have to go to the fuka, or open-air second-hand market. There, you can find vintage bed sheets and clothes, including t-shirts made with knits. Those are the only knits available here. My kids run around in several t-shits made from repurposed fuka finds. It’s ok for making clothes for toddlers, but I guess it would be harder to make anything other than t-shirts or tank tops for adults since the sizes require more yardage.  This is why I travel with fabric in my suitcase when I come here… 

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