Saturday, 30 November 2013

Markets in Dakar: Sandaga and HLM

Madame Tay’s adventure into West African textiles began here, in Marché Sandaga – the biggest market in Senegal’s bustling capital city, Dakar. Fire ripped through the market’s main building in October, but that hasn’t stopped the commerçants from dealing their wares – the streets around the market were as busy as ever!

Marché Sandaga [Image credit:]

Lucky for me, I had a whole team behind me helping me negotiate the windy labyrinth of Sandaga. Our tailor Diogomaye, his Aunty and his cousin Arame had offered to come along to help buying the first round of fabric Diogo would turn into our samples. So we piled into a taxi and headed off to centre ville.

Friday, 29 November 2013

A Short History of Wax Print in West Africa: Authentic African Fabric?

The first time I came to West Africa was 2007. Motivated by the desire to learn French and drawn by the cheap cost of living, I chose Senegal as my destination and like many foreigners who arrive in this vibrant country I was immediately intrigued by the dynamism and energy of the capital city, Dakar. What struck me most was the incredible way Senegalese women and men wore colours and prints – and remember this was pre-Solange and before ‘print on print’ was even a thing. The more time I spent in West Africa, namely in Senegal and Ghana, the more I learnt about the diverse range of textiles available here and about their varying levels of  authenticity – whilst many of the popular fabrics worn here are African, most are not – but does that make them any less authentic as symbols of West African culture?

Considering that wax prints are emerging steadily in mainstream fashion with icons such as Beyonce and Gwen Stefani wearing them regularly, and haute couture labels like Burberry Prorsum featuring them heavily in their recent collections, the question of where these ‘African Wax Prints’, as they are so often described, originated from is super important, and reveals a long and fascinating history.

L-R: Lady Gaga, Anna Wintour, Kate Bosworth and Solange Knowles all in Burberry Prorsum SS 2012   [Image Credit:]

Let’s go back a bit first.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

From Paintbrush to Skirt

After the typhoon Haiyan passes by Hanoi – the next few days are filled with clear blue skies – rare in a country which is consistently rated amongst the ten worst in the world for air pollution. To make the most of the crisp clear sky, I head to Commune during my lunch break to finalise our sizing and designs for the tailor.

The idea for a clothing project originally came from Cara who had spent the past year working in Tamale, Ghana and was in the midst of planning a trip to Senegal. Inspired by some of Cara’s friends who had tailored African wax print designs to sell in Melbourne and Sydney, I was keen to try a similar thing in Vietnam. I think both Cara and I were drawn initially to the project simply as a creative outlet or as Cara described it “an excuse to source fabrics and work with tailors on the ground to produce fabulous things”.  

I was convinced that Vietnam would be the perfect location to produce complements to the Senegalese pieces. Firstly, for all of us the focus on using high quality natural fabrics was crucial. In one of our earliest conversations, Sarah expressed an interest in the “use of natural fabrics by all these japanese "natural style" brands... i think we could have a similar aesthetic in terms of simplicity and natural fabrics (silk, cotton, linen), but different cuts that are perhaps slightly more form-fitting, more young professional office worker than wee little forest fairy...” Vietnam is known for producing beautiful silks and is also one of the five biggest cotton importers in the world to supply its domestic garment and textile production.

It's been really exciting to find some amazing fabric goldmines during my trips to the fabric market. A fabric which I quickly fell in love with was this paintbrush style navy-peach floral cotton blend.  

Our original idea for this fabric was to make a lady-like dress with a fitted bodice and full skirt, we are still making this, but I loved the fabric so much that I wanted to also use it to make a simpler piece that allowed people to integrate the unique pattern into their daily outfits and to dress it down with a more simple top. We decided to use the same fabric to make a classic A-line skirt. Christina was adamant that both this skirt and the lady-like dress should have lining underneath. I found this beautifully soft silk for the lining which I bought in navy, peach and white. So Each skirt and dress will be a bit of a lucky-dip with each piece made of its own unique coloured silk lining.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

A Trip to the Fabric Market

Let's start at Ninh Hiep fabric market, twenty kilometres from Hanoi - where it all begins. Tucked in between rice paddies and a rapidly encroaching urban sprawl lies Northern Vietnam's largest textile market, where everyday more than 1,000 local household traders gather to sell a plethora of different fabrics, zips and buttons. 

One of my favourite parts of the trip to Ninh Hiep is travelling across Long Bien bridge – a shared train-motorbike overpass which hangs over the Red River. Built by a pair of Parisian architects, the bridge survived numerous assassination attempts during the American War due to its strategic importance as the only bridge connecting the capital of Hanoi to the strategic port-side town of Hai Phong. Driving over the bridge you will pass palm-tree lined fields on your left and couples taking impromptu photo shoots on the train tracks to your right.

The street leading up to the market is lined for almost one kilometre by individual fabric stores – here you can see the stores preparing for the upcoming Typhoon Haiyan by lining their roofs with tarp.

These streets prepare you for the onslaught of choice that lies ahead. It is easy to lose several hours at Ninh Hiep wading through various fabrics and colours. There is no shortage of cheap synthetics as Ninh Hiep falls directly on Vietnam’s trading route with its neighbours in the North. Sellers have no qualms telling you that their cheap polyester fabric is actually 100% top-quality cotton. However, beautiful linens, silks and cottons lie amongst the masses even if they are not always easy to find.  Almost every Hanoian tailor who has spent the better part of their lives stitching and sewing by hand can tell you in a matter of seconds what each fabric is made of.


Favourite purchases from the market include:
  • Cotton-silk fabric – I brought 55 metres in navy blue
  • Gold coloured buttons sold by the gram
  • Twilled-cotton blend in a unique blue/pink hazy floral print