For all you fashionistas out there who love unique textiles from around the world, East Africa should be your next travel and shopping destination. Kitenge and Kanga are the words you will here.
Here’s more about the two fabrics you want to invest in when in Africa:
Kitenge, known as chitenge in some countries, are indigenous to Tanzania, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, Kenya and Namibia. They are longer, and sometimes made of thicker cloth, than a khanga, usually measuring at a length of 6 meters and a width of 1.5 meters while a khanga is half the length. The story goes that these textiles originated in the bazaars of Zanzibar, a hub of intercultural exchange, via the extensive trade routes originating in Europe, India, Persia, Northern Africa and more.
The multitude of designs, symbols, shapes and colors have been adopted from all of these diverse regions and incorporated to give the kitenge meaning. It can signify cultural background, social position, religion, an attitude, belief, or mood. Sometimes Swahili proverbs or political messages are also printed and these cloths are then worn to make a statement.
The material used to make both khangas and kitenges is 100% cotton. The bold colors and patterns are achieved using a manual wax batik method. This means a design made of wax is stamped, brushed, combed, or otherwise adhered onto the fabric. After it dries and hardens, the fabric is dipped into a variety of different dyes, creating a unique multicolor pattern. A complex piece can take months to complete, as the cloth needs to dry before another color is applied. After the dyeing is finished, the wax is then scraped off, or the cloth is boiled until the wax comes off.
In most of the countries listed above, khangas and kitenges have traditional uses that are still relevant today. The cloths are given to women on their wedding days, to later be made into clothes or used to tie babies to their backs. In order to celebrate the birth of a child, as well as to pay respect to someone who has passed, a kanga is tied around womens’ waists. Scraps of larger pieces are used as headscarfs or shaws. You can’t go anywhere in East Africa without seeing these beautiful fabrics adorning women as they go about their daily lives.
The cloths can be purchased at any local market for around 10,000 shillings ($6) for a shorter piece and 18,000 shillings ($10) for a longer piece. The mzungu tax, or what the shopkeepers charge white people, is usually applied, so feel free to bargain for a lower price. Once you’ve picked your design, it’s easy to take it to a local tailor and have it made in to clothes, pillow cases, or anything else you might like. Bringing in pictures of how you want your fabrics sewn is helpful.
The best part is, many of the khangas and kitenges are made in such diverse patterns that it’s rare to find someone else with the same one. Enjoy shopping for your new African style wardrobe!