African textiles are woven pathways to a more sustainable world. With the shared acknowledgment that the production of textiles can contribute to transforming the material conditions of livelihoods across the continent, about 200 people gathered for the first-of-its-kind Africa Textile Talks 2023 at the V&A Waterfront’s Workshop 17 in Cape Town, South Africa, on Thursday, 17 August.
Attendees hailed from Mauritius, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa to map a way forward for the textile industry – in practical and poetic steps. Merging the worlds of fashion, textiles and artisanal craft, Africa Textile Talks 2023 aimed to celebrate and support a growing African textile ecosystem that acts with care for people and the planet.
Here’s a rundown of what the talks covered and our key takeaways from the event.
African Textiles – Vessels of Memory, Identities, and Heritage
Sunny Dolat, from Kenya, speaks to the Africa Textile Talks 2023 audience about African textile heritages
In his opening keynote address, Kenyan creative director and cultural producer, Sunny Dolat, spoke about African textiles as vessels of memory, identities, and heritage. Co-founder of The Nest Collective, Sunny is a multidisciplinary collective who lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. In the keynote, Sunny spoke about the deep significance of textiles in African cultures.
He also quoted Ghanaian sculptor, El Anatsui, who famously said, “Cloth is to the African what monuments are to Westerners.”
Key takeaway: Textiles are more than just adornment. Across African countries, textiles can act as archives, cultural markers, family heirlooms, storytelling mediums, spiritual and religious artefacts, and mediums of communication. They hold weight and depth in ways that the consumerist culture of the Global North is yet to grasp.
Africa’s Sustainable Material World
General manager of sustainability (dissolving pulp) at Sappi, Krelyne Andrew and chief executive officer at Cape Wools SA, Deon Saayman listen as Noreen Mwancha explains how the Kenyan start-up Rethread Africa produces textile from agricultural pineapple waste
The African continent is rich in natural fibres – from silk, cotton, and linen, to wool, mohair, raffia, and hemp. This panel discussion was inspirational in that it discussed the continent’s textile innovations both old and new including the production and growing of natural virgin fibres and the recycling of waste. Most African textiles are woven, produced by hand, often without high-tech machines and electricity. But new, inspirational technologies are being implemented to improve the sustainability of the textile industry.
This conversation between Esethu Cenga from Rewoven; Krelyne Andrew, Sappi’s general manager of sustainability (dissolving pul); Noreen Mwancha of Rethread Africa; Deon Saayman, Cape Wools SA’s CEO; and denim designer Carolina Li from Mauritiu’s Denim de I’Ile touched on climate-positive forestry, recycled denim, agri-waste as raw material, regenerative wool farming and traceability.
Ethically, sustainably, and thoughtfully created textiles and fashion have the potential to catalyse positive social change when it comes to job creation, sustainable livelihoods, archival work, and knowledge production. Of course, we live in a world where we need to produce less, but the African fashion blueprint is slow in nature. So cultivating thriving textile economies in countries across the continent is a way of pushing for holistic and inclusive economic transformation.
Key takeaway: When we think about innovation, and the future of fashion, often high-tech solutions come to mind. But, we need to rethink our understanding of “innovation” and make room for a balance of high-tech and low-tech solutions. Low-technology solutions prioritise simplicity and durability, local manufacture, as well as traditional or ancient techniques. While low-tech solutions, such as Carolina Li’s denim upcycling, are essential for shifting the culture of overproduction and overconsumption, high-tech solutions, such as Sappi’s dissolving pulp and Cape Wools SA’s traceability solutions, are invaluable for the sustainability of the industry.
Farm-To-Fabric: A Story from a Karoo Mohair Studio
Frances van Hasselt tells the story of her farm-to-fibre-to fashion practice.
The farm-to-fibre-to-fashion movement advocates for rebuilding localised, natural fibre textile systems. In this poetic presentation Karoo-based designer, entrepreneur and founder of Frances V.H Mohair, Frances van Hasselt shed light on her design story. She spoke about the importance of connecting to the land, working with local artisans, and harnessing the beauty and versatility of one of South Africa’s most abundant natural fibres – mohair.
Key takeaway: Our thriving wool and mohair industry is playing a pivotal role in reviving our once-prosperous local textile economy. To ensure that this revival is sustainable requires regenerative farming, sustainable practices, and ethical partnership with local artisans which are evident in the South African wool and mohair industries. Traceability, transparency, and creative design storytelling are key to this.
H&M South Africa Envisions a Sustainable Global Fashion System
Caroline Nelson shares insights into H&M’s local partnerships for a sustainable future
Sustainable textile systems require strategic cross-sector collaboration and partnerships between businesses and organisations that want to be a part of the change. In her presentation, the country manager of H&M Southern Africa Caroline Nelson spoke about the global retailer’s sustainability efforts and the local partnerships.
Currently the H&M Global Change Award, an annual innovation challenge initiated by the H&M Foundation, supports changemakers creating a planet positive fashion and textile industry. This year, Rethread Africa was one of the finalists. Rethread Africa attended the Talks from Kenya to showcase its recycled pineapple waste fibre.
H&M South Africa is on a mission to support local regenerative agriculture and protect biodiversity. In partnership with BKB Ltd, the largest supplier of Responsible Wool Standard wool, H&M is developing scalable models to promote on-farm regenerative management in Albany, Eastern Cape. This is notable considering that most wool used by H&M, globally, is responsibly sourced from South Africa.
Plus, H&M South Africa runs a garment collection and recycling programme in partnership with Clothes to Good – a local organisation that uses textile waste to empower micro-businesses and contribute to a circular economy.
Key takeaway: Strategic partnerships are key to revitalising thriving, resilient textile ecosystems across the continent. It’s going to take actors at all levels of the industry to advocate for transformative change.
How GOTS is Reinvigorating Organic Textile Cultivation in Africa
Muktar Dodo, from Nigeria, shares the work GOTS does to build the movement of organic textile production on the continent.
The Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) is a certification standard for organic textiles. The GOTS label is a sign that assures the certified organic status of textiles, from the harvesting of the raw fibre, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labelling, to provide credible assurance to the consumer. This certification also enables textile processors and manufacturers to market their fabrics and garments as organic and for consumers to be assured of its validity.
During this presentation, Muktar Dodo, from the Global Organic Textiles Standard, spoke about certified organic textiles from Africa and the need to reinvigorate Africa’s textile ecosystems while leading with organic textiles. Muktar discussed why organic textiles are important in fashion and how the African textile industry can overcome greenwashing claims to produce truly sustainable textiles.
Key takeaway: As we find ways to create farm-to-fashion systems in Africa, certifications will play an important role when it comes to consumer awareness and industry transformation. Certifications such as GOTS are an important part of encouraging people to make more informed purchasing decisions, because they communicate to the consumer what the brand or manufacturer’s values are and what they are committed to when it comes to sustainability and ethics. Certifications also allow for greater transparency and traceability in textile supply chains, which is essential for industry accountability, setting the precedent for best practices, and the creation of circular economies.
How Design Influences the Future Textile Economy
Tinyiko Makwakwa speaks about her natural dyeing journey on a panel with Bielle Bellingham, Natalie Green, and Sumendra Chetty.
Designers play a key role in challenging the status quo in the fashion and textiles industry. This could mean designing with fabric waste, upcycling discarded materials, incorporating recycled materials, excluding toxins, working with regeneratively farmed fibres, and designing garments that are durable and easy to disassemble and recycle at end-of-life.
This conversation between design multi-hyphenate and creative visionary Bielle Bellingham, textile designer Tinyiko Makwakwa, knitwear designer Natalie Green, and Merchants on Long’s fashion buyer Sumendra Chetty laid out the practicalities and challenges of using design as a medium to bring about positive change.
Key takeaway: Unusual and unprecedented collaboration is a much-needed element to the reinvigoration of Africa’s textile ecosystems. To forge a future where textiles can be the foundation of positive social change, we need to break down the imaginary barriers between African countries and form meaningful collaborations. Breaking out of geographic and social silos, and sharing common insights and challenges, is essential for moving toward better future.
How Textile Waste in Ghana is Inspiring the Rethinking of the Global Textiles System
Yvette Yaa Konadu Tetteh tells the story of how she swam 450km down the Volta River to research the impacts of microplastic and toxic chemical pollution on Ghanaian waterways.
The dumping of textile waste in Africa – also referred to as waste colonialism – is a defining factor of the global textile economy. It has stifled many local textile economies. Ghana’s The Or Foundation spoke about the devastating realities of the global secondhand textile trade, and the need for a new justice-led and circular textile economy. They presented their research and work that supports the circular textile solutions in one of the biggest secondhand markets in the world, the Kantamanto Market in Accra.
Sammy Oteng and Kennie MacCarthy joined virtually for the presentation while Yvette Tetteh represented the organisation, in person, at the Talks. Yvette works with The Or Foundation and has recently completed the Agbetsi Living Water Expedition – a 450km swim down the Volta River System in Ghana – to conduct groundbreaking scientific research on microplastic and water pollution from fashion waste.
Key takeaway: We need to spread the word about the effects of waste colonialism on the continent. And our advocacy for circular, waste-free textile systems needs to include avenues for justice for the people who shoulder the burden of the world’s waste.
The Connections of Memory and Cloth
Tina Smith speaks alongside Patience Watlington, Jean Pretorius and Sylvia Ganget about how textiles have been a medium for healing at the District Six Museum.
In the closing talk, Tina Smith, head of exhibitions at the District Six Museum, along with Patience Watlington, Jean Pretorius and Sylvia Ganget shared oral histories and memories of District Six that are being memorialised through textile projects atthe District Six Museum.
The story of District Six is a story of uprooting. District Six is a former inner-city residential area, in Cape Town, that was a melting pot of culture. In the 1970s, under the rule of the Apartheid regime, over 60 000 District Six residents were forcibly removed and relocated to peripheral areas on the Cape Flats.
A central feature of the District Six Museum is the Memory Cloth. Former residents of District Six write personal messages, thoughts, and anecdotes on the cloth. Now, it is over a kilometre long and filled with written and embroidered memories of a time gone by.
Another project, Huis Kombuis Design and Craft Memory Project, initiated by Tina in 2006 creates a space for return and remembering through a revival of traditional home-based crafts like embroidery, sewing, and appliqué work.
Key takeaway: Textiles are history books and archives. They tell stories of those who have long been left out of classrooms. In the same breath, they are deeply personal mediums for healing, remembrance, and non-verbal sharing of memory and lived experiences.
Presenting a film about the provenance of the Lukhanyo Mdingi 2022 Burkina Collection
Lukhanyo Mdingi introduces his short film “BURKINA”.
Fitting with the themes of the day, designer Lukhanyo Mdingi shared a screening of the short film that documents the making of the eponymous label’s 2022 Burkina Collection. The collection wad debuted at Paris Fashion Week in 2021, but the lessons learnt from the collection’s tactile textile journey endure. Taking the viewer to , Burkina Faso, the film celebrates and tells the story about the craftspeople whose wisdoms are reflected in the treasured garments that make up this collection.
Key takeaway: Arts, crafts, and the techniques of African artisans can, and should, play a central role in the way we redefine our textile futures.
- Images: All photographs by The Dollie House