Picture It

The Seamstress of Monkey Bay

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 19 October 2010

Mariam’s sewing machine next to a wall of material. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

I started at the “Cash and Carry” grocery store, where I quenched my thirst with three small bags of strawberry yogurt.  The store was out of water, which wasn’t surprising.  Not only was the temperature climbing up to around 100F with oppressively high humidity, but there was also a crippling fuel shortage in the country, which made it difficult for some companies to deliver to the more rural areas.  Yet somehow, the vans and minibuses were able to find fuel, and they sat outside of the grocery store honking their horns like a seasoned New York cabbie and yelling their destinations to all who walked by.

Mariam measures a customer for a dress. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

I crossed the road and ducked under the low-hanging branches of a tree that partially conceals one of the entrances to the market.  I followed the man from the grocery store who was going to introduce me to the best seamstress in town.  We navigated through the narrow alleys, over broken mud bricks, and passed stalls that sell everything from freshly-made french fries to collared dress shirts and Chinese-made flashlights.  Some men sat in the middle of the dusty paths with buckets of small fish, which gave off a very powerful stench because they had been sitting in the hot sun all day.  I batted away the flies as I leaned against a wall to let someone else pass through the narrow walking corridor.

I tried to pay as much attention to all the turns we made through the maze-like market because I knew I would eventually need to find my way back out.  After a few minutes of walking (though it seemed like much longer due to the sensory overload), my impromptu  guide stuck his head through the window of a small mud-brick building and called out a greeting to the smiling lady sitting behind a black sewing machine.  Then he turned to me and beckoned me to enter.

Poster of available designs. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Mariam trimming the fabric. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

The shop is small, only about a meter and a half by four meters.  The store front, made up of one of the longer sides of the room, has a door (which is always open during business hours to let in light and air) and three large glass-less windows.  A small bench and two wooden tables are pushed up against the windows so the seamstresses can use the natural light to complete their work.  This is necessary because there is no electricity in the market.  The long back wall of the room has shallow shelves from the floor to the ceiling.  This is where scrap material, cut cloth for clients, and completed items are stacked and hung.  Every once in a while, a stack would tumble onto the dirt floor.  Along each short wall of the room, there is a manual sewing machine.  Although the two machines are different makes, they are both foot-powered, basic Chinese-made black metal models.  They both have detailed floral paintings and intricately etched steel plates which give them an old-world feel, even though their lack of chipped paint makes me think they are relatively new.

Mariam uses her hand to help start the sewing machine. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

This is where Mariam Kawinga works as a seamstress.

When I arrived, there were two other women sitting on the bench chatting with Mariam as she sewed a green school uniform.  She stood up to greet me and inspect the bundles of material I had.

“It’s Malawian material.  The colors are beautiful, but I don’t like Malawian material.”  When I asked her why, all she would say was, “Tanzanian is better.”

She rubbed the material between her fingers as she said that.  I haven’t noticed a difference between their feel, but I haven’t felt them both at the same time to make a proper comparison.  The main difference I have noticed between Malawian and Tanzanian material is the design style.  Tanzanian material better matches the Western stereotype of what African fabric should look like, employing  bold designs, broad lines, exaggerated features, and bright colors (mostly black, brown, gold, green, and blue).  Malawian material uses designs and patterns that borrow from the modern way of life, like my music themed material or the heart themed one mentioned in the DWS Mapeto entry.  I’ve also seen patterns made of diamond rings and high heels.  I don’t see this as making one country’s material better than the other, just more suitable for specific markets.

Mariam uses her feet to power the sewing machine. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

I told Mariam that I would like a few skirts made from the material I gave her.  She pointed behind one of the sewing machines to a large poster that showed a few dozen dress styles being modeled by a small child.  I already had an idea of what I wanted the skirts to look like, so I was pleased when I was easily able to find two similar styles on the poster.  One was advertised as a very popular style in Nigeria, but the other did not list a country of origin.  Mariam nodded when I pointed out the two styles, then immediately went to work measuring my waist, hips, legs, and other measurements in between.  I asked her to keep one of the skirts long, but to modify the other so it would reach my knees instead of my ankles.  She laughed and shook her head, but obliged.

She went back to chatting with the other people in the shop (and the ones in the alley who were intrigued by the appearance of a mzungu in the local market) as she unfolded and folded my fabric, smoothing out the wrinkles before making another fold.  Some of the folds reminded me of origami.  Each fold was made with precise lengths determined by the bright yellow tape measure that hung around Mariam neck.  She marked out each fold and each measurement with white chalk.  When she began cutting along all of the dusty marks, she used her tape measure to create perfect circular cuts by holding one end of the tape measure in one spot and spinning the rest around that point as she cut.

Consulting her notebook to check sizes and orders. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Her hands moved so deftly, measuring and cutting, and only glancing at the book where she wrote down my measurements once.  She wore a black scarf wrapped around her head despite the heat.  I had sweat dripping down my forehead within only a few minutes of entering the shop.  The windows and the door were all opened, hoping to tempt a breeze, but there was not the slightest stirring of the air to help cool the room.

Mariam has been working as a seamstress for three and a half years.  Her mother was also a seamstress.  She did not learn how to be a seamstress from her mother, but from a trade school so she would have better qualifications.  She has only one child, a daughter, but she says her daughter does not want to become a seamstress; she wants to become a lawyer.  One of the reasons why Mariam chose to work as a seamstress was because she could earn more money doing that than many other jobs, and she needs the money to pay for her daughter’s school fees.  She also uses the money to support her aging parents.  She saves a little each month so she can buy a house.

Mariam sewing a school uniform. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Mariam is bright and slightly shy.  She laughed often when she chatted with her friends and customers, but every time her gaze returned to her work, her expression became one of intense concentration.  While working at the sewing machine, she took off her sandals to protect them and keep them looking new.  She was fascinated by my camera and insisted that I have my photograph taken with her.  She laughed freely as she moved my head, shoulders, and arms into various poses for the pictures.

When she finished cutting the material for my skirts, she returned to the sewing machine to finish two shirts before her customers came to pick them up.  I stayed in the shop, watching, sweating, photographing, chatting, laughing, and entertaining with my broken Chichewa, until shortly before sunset.  The temperature had only dropped a few degrees, but the absence of the direct sun on my skin made the bike ride home much more tolerable.

I returned to the shop a few days later to pick up four beautifully made skirts.  How many other people can say that they own a personalized skirt, let alone that they followed the production of those skirts from the raw cotton, through the spinning, weaving, printing, packaging, measuring, cutting, and sewing all the way to the finished product?  That’s one of the best parts about living in a place like this where everything is made locally.

David Whitehead & Sons Mapeto: The Factory

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 10 October 2010

Barrels of brightly colored fabric dye. DWS Mapeto, Blantyre, Malawi.

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.

A man removes impurities from the cotton. DWS Mapeto, Blantyre, Malawi.

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.

A worker monitors the spinning of thread. DWS Mapeto, Blantyre, Malawi.

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.

Threads are lined up to be wound onto a beam before being starched. DWS Mapeto, Blantyre, Malawi.

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.

A man monitors a weaving machine. DWS Mapeto, Blantyre, Malawi.

The original weaving machines, still in use! DWS Mapeto, Blantyre, Malawi.

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.

Thread being woven on a projectile machine. DSW Mapeto, Blantyre, Malawi.

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.

An “Engraver” preparing the layered design templates. DWS Mapeto, Blantyre, Malawi.

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.

Design plates for printing. DWS Mapeto, Blantyre, Malawi.

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.

Old design plates waiting to be recycled. DWS Mapeto, Blantyre, Malawi.

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.

A man monitoring the printing process. Each round plate has a different color, which are printing on top of one another to create a colorful design. DWS Mapeto, Blantyre, Malawi.

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!

A man quality-checking the material as it comes out of the printing machines. DWS Mapeto, Blantyre, Malawi.

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 room specially designed for Chinese material. DWS Mapeto, Blantyre, Malawi.

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!