David Whitehead & Sons Mapeto: The Factory
Whether you’re wandering the streets or just driving through, one of the typical Malawian elements that you are most likely to notice are the brightly colored skirts and head wraps worn by the local women. They have bold designs and vibrant colors, and they are often worn in elaborate styles. Some of the women wear the material as a chitenji, which is like a simple sarong or wrap-around skirt. These are layered, usually three or four on top of one another, but more are worn during the cooler months or if the woman will need to re-appropriate one of the chitenji as a sling to hold a baby. Seamstress shops are easily found in every town for the women who choose to cut their material into fashionable skirts, dresses, or full ensembles.
Although more than half of the material found in most of the markets is imported from Tanzania, Malawi also makes its own fabric. The main producer is David Whitehead & Sons Mapeto, or DWS Mapeto, which is located in Blantyre, the commercial center of the country. I was lucky enough to be given a personal tour of the factory, where I spoke with workers, managers, printers, and designers.
The tour of the factory followed the journey the cotton takes as it progresses through the plant. Upon entering the building, I saw a man surrounded by scales and giant bundles of raw cotton. He was picking through the cotton to separate it and remove any major impurities. In the following rooms, the cotton is pulled apart even further to remove more impurities, and then it is spun into a thick, loose yarn. In the next few rooms, the yarn is spun again and again until it becomes thin, tough thread.
It is difficult to talk or breathe in these rooms because the spinning pulls off pieces of the cotton and throws it into the air. The rooms look dusty, but it is only the cotton floating around. When breathing or talking, pieces of this cotton (which can sometimes be quite large) get into the nose and mouth, which is rather uncomfortable. The men wear masks, but I was in these rooms for such a short time that I did not wear one.
In some of these rooms, only a few of the machines were operating. That wasn’t because the machines were broken but because there wasn’t enough material that day to make it necessary to use every machine.
Once the yarn is worked into a thread of a proper thickness and placed on spindles, it is brought to the weaving department. Here, hundreds of threads are lined up alongside one another until they reach the desired width of the final piece of material, which is usually around 4 to 9 feet wide. The threads, each 50,000 meters long, are then wound around a giant spindle called a beam.
From here, the beams are placed into a machine that will coat the thread in starch to strengthen the thread in preparation for the weaving. Two different kinds of starch are used, corn starch, which is bought from China, and cassava starch, which is made in Malawi. Each starch has slightly different properties, but it doesn’t affect the weaving process.
The weaving is completed by three different types of machines; air-jet, electronic, and projectile. Some machines are Swiss while others are American. Nearly all of the machines are relatively new, but there are still two rows of machines that have survived since the factory was first opened, and they still work wonderfully. Regardless of which type of machine is used, all the thread is woven into identical swaths of white cloth.
Just like in the spinning rooms, the machines move so quickly over the thread that pieces of cotton are thrust into the air. The room looked hazy, which makes it difficult to see across the enormous room. Only some of the workers here wore face masks, but those who went without didn’t seem bothered by the cotton tickling their noses and throats. Most didn’t wear ear protection either, despite the noise, which is so loud that people standing next to each other can scream to communicate, but neither will understand the other unless they can lip-read.
While the men are diligently working in the weaving department, other groups are working equally as hard in the design and engraving departments. The design team works at a separate location, while the engraving team (who carves the designs onto the plates that are used during printing) works in a darkroom next to the printing room.
The designers create designs in three different ways: through working from foreign samples, through customer requests, and through their own ideas.
Samples are brought in from countries from around the world, but the most popular ones come from China and Ireland. Some of these samples are copied exactly, but others are simply borrowed from and altered to fit the style of the Malawian market.
Customers also bring in their own requests. Sometimes they bring in samples of their own and ask for replicas, but more often, they bring photos of people or logos from their company or organization and have those printed on the material. Most of these types of requests come from religious or political groups that use the material as a form of advertising, just like Western companies do when they print their own name on their products. Besides portraits of leaders and logos, some of the requested designs are used as educational material, describing in words and pictures about things like the history of Malawi or the importance of breast feeding.
The last type of design is created from scratch by the designers. The design used by the engravers to give us a demonstration was this type of design.
For this particular design, the designer began with a heart shape, which he said was often requested by the customers who want to show off their happiness and their love. Since floral designs are very popular, the hearts were arranged into a flower shape, which might also represent blooming love. Most designs come in a few different color schemes, but the designers decide this as well. They also divide the design’s colors into the layers of dye and the order in which those layers will be printed onto the material.
The engraving department takes over from here. Even though the end product is a piece of material, the process that the engraving team follows is very similar to how photographs are made, developed, and printed. They take the color layers and create a plate for each one, much in the same way a newspaper or magazine would for printing photographs. Bright, hot lights are used to “burn” each layer of the design onto a photographic-emulsion-coated metal plate, which similar to how a photograph is imprinted onto a piece of film with light. Because of this method, the room is kept very dark, like a photographic darkroom.
After the plates have had their designs “fixed,” or made permanent (again, like film is “fixed” during developing), they are given to the printing department. The printing department will use each plate multiple times until the moving material eventually wears down the grooves on the plate. The plates are then melted down to be recycled.
Before printing, the material goes through a few more steps before it is ready to receive the dye. First, it is submitted to a rotation of bleaches to ensure the material is evenly whitened. Then it is washed and tested for width, strength, and thickness before it is moved to the printing rooms.
The printing area is dominated by the bitter chemical smell of the dye. The sound of the printing machines is also much louder than expected, although it is much quieter than the weaving rooms. The material is fed into the printing machine where is passes under a series of the round plates. Each plate is covered in a different color ink, and because of the composition of the plates, the ink only sticks to the etched design. This allows the plates to be rolled continuously, creating seamless designs and speedily, efficiently produced prints. When you stand on the walkway next to the rolling plates, you can see in between the rollers and watch the material evolve as each additional layer of dye is applied.
The head of the department showed me his supplies of dye. He is proud of his job and even more proud of his skills. Because he has spent so many years working at the company, he says he can make any color that a customer can bring to him. I believe him, especially after having seen the amazing number of base colors he has to start with!
From here, we moved into yet another wing of the plant. Since the cotton production in Malawi can not keep up with the demand for material, the company must import some material from abroad. The cheapest comes from China. Sometimes it is actually cheaper to import than it is to make material at the factory. The one problem with Chinese material is that it is a different width than Malawian material, so it needs different machines to process it. As such, there is an entire wing of the plant dedicated to Chinese material.
Once all of the material is printed, it undergoes a few more steps to make the dye permanent. First, it is moisturized to help the material absorb the color. Next, it is passed through a curing machine, which heats the fabric to 164C, which not only fixes the dye, but it also makes the colors noticeably more vibrant. After washing the material to remove excess dye, more chemicals are applied to make the fabric stiff. Then it’s off to the packing department.
The packing department is the last stage of production at the factory. This is where they perform the final quality checks. They also cut the material into different lengths, the most popular being 1m, 2, 5m, 15m, and 30m, but other sizes do exist. Then they are bundled and packed by a line of men in an assembly line before they are shipped around the country.
I was very impressed with the efficiency of the factory. I have had some trouble finding DWS Mapeto material in some of the markets, but there are stores dotting the cities and countryside. All of these have been wonderfully stocked, and I made sure to buy from them instead of from markets that sell only Tanzanian products. I find the Malawian designs to be more stylish anyway!