A Student Development Experience in a Development Context

Tanzanian Couture

(Due to multiple power outages during our last week and a few days of travel, this post is a little behind. As they say, better late than never!)

After six weeks in Tanzania, I am still in awe of how colourful and vibrant this country is. I love the way the bold hues of the buildings contrast with the surrounding scenery. But my favourite colours come from the people and their clothing. In Karatu, the women prefer a more traditional style of dress where their wardrobe relies on large sheets of woven fabric. A variety of fabric types are available but the most common is the kanga. Printed with bold colours, the patterns on kangas are usually vibrant and the motif resembles images from nature.

Typically, the kanga cloths are cut in half. One half is used as a wrap skirt while the other half is fashioned into a kilemba. Swahili for turban, the kanga cloth is wrapped around the woman’s head creating a hat like covering. There seems to be an endless variety of kilemba styles, some very simple while others are quite exotic looking. This fashion statement is rooted in culture, but I have seen many women use their kilemba to help them balance whatever they are carrying on their head, allowing them to leave their hands free.

Most will supplement the kanga with second hand clothing, but others can visit a tailor and have the kanga sewn into an outfit. Earlier this week, I decided to get a kanga outfit made. An avid sewer myself, I was curious to understand how the tailors fashioned custom made outfits effectively. Whenever I have made something for myself back home the process is long and tedious. Luckily, the tailor was willing to let me watch her in action and learn her secrets.

She starts by taking a few measurements, jotting them down in a notebook. Laying the fabric on the counter top, the tailor uses a measuring tape and a piece of chalk to make a few markings before drawing the outline freehand right onto the fabric. I couldn’t believe how quickly and simply she created the pattern. Pattern drafting is the most intense part of garment creation. Following the methods I was taught in school, it requires hours of measuring and drawing, and nothing is ever done freehand. Yet there was the pattern, completed in less than 10 minutes.

The construction process was similar. The tailor was relying on experience instead of precision to create my outfit, challenging everything I had ever learned about sewing. Of course, in the end the dress turned out perfect. Fit me like a glove on the first try and only took about four hours from start to finish. Sharing my experience with the team, Jacklynn brought up a great analogy. The tailor is like a cook, who with experience no longer needs a recipe.

The best part of the experience was getting dressed up in my new outfit. The ladies in the shop even used the leftover fabric to create my own kilemba. Even though they could not speak any English, they had me pose and took pictures with my camera, all of us laughing. Then, they insisted I walk home in my new outfit. Everyone I passed looked at me and smiled. Some called me Mama Africa.

This got me thinking about cultural dress. What is the typical Canadian outfit? A toque and plaid fleece jacket? In our multicultural society, has cultural dress has become watered down? While Canadians still identify with their ancestral heritage, for the most part we adhere to a dress code based off European runway fashion trends. While I certainly fall into this category, my experience with the Tanzanian dress maker has definitely left me wanting to learn more about both current and historical cultural dress, and inspired me to use different cultural aesthetics in my own sewing projects.


3 responses

  1. Scott

    Good for you. Isn’t sharing a laugh just the best thing? Language barriers – come on! Laughter has no language!

    June 28, 2011 at 7:42 am

  2. Mallory! Great blog entry – really safi sana. This is part of the ‘service’ and experiential component of the trip and I am so very glad that you had the initiative to provide yourself with this glimpse into Tanzanian culture, and into Tanzanian livelihoods. More later. Enjoy Amsterdam.

    June 28, 2011 at 9:11 am

  3. Murat Ates

    “Cooking without a recipe” sounds apt, for sure! The sense I get with skilled crafts and trades is that the smaller the community or the less standardized the procedure, the more the craftsperson’s unique individual skills and personality shine.

    Also: as a Canadian who has never worn a plaid jacket, I’m not sure what to suggest represents us best. Jeans and t-shirts? Tough to say in such a big country.

    June 29, 2011 at 4:54 pm

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