Tribal Textiles at South Luangwa, Zambia
October 15, 2013

I visited Tribal Textiles, a privately owned artisanal production facility in the South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia.   Operating since 1991, Tribal Textiles designs, paints and finishes textile goods using local manpower, and distributes its goods throughout the world, including in the US and in Japan.  At the facility,  I was able to speak with Moses, one of the foremen of the factory, to learn more about the production process for these handicrafts.

Set in open air, the facility currently employs about 90 people of both genders.  Moses explained that production takes place during the dry season in Zambia, from around May until November.  Locals—who might otherwise be day laborers in agricultural production during the wet season—work on contract.

Similar to the atelier system (or the assembly line production for cars), the facility has artisans specializing in specific aspects of the streamlined production process.  First, artisans draw the outline of designs—by freehand!—onto the cotton, using a mixture of flour and water.  Here is an artisan drawing safari animals (did I mention without any underdrawing??!!).

Next, the fabric is passed onto the painters who use water-based paints.  Almost all colors are mixed by hand from the three primary colors of red, blue and yellow.

After the fabric is set out to dry in the sun for about 30 minutes, the fabric is baked in an electricity-powered oven for about 5 minutes to set the color.  Then, the flour starch is scraped away, leaving the outlines of the beautiful designs in negative.  

Finally, the fabric is finished into products that include cushion covers, pouches, table runners, and napkins. Pouches cost approximately ZMW 70-110 (or approximately USD 13-20) and a set of six napkins cost approximately ZMW 200 (or approximately USD 40).  These prices appear to be expensive relative to the cost of living in Zambia; while it is unclear whether the artisans are paid in proportion to these retail prices, it appears that many of them return year after year during the dry season to work at the facility.

Each step within the production process appears to have a daily ‘goal’ (or quota for units).  The foreman explained to us that lunch is provided for the artisans, and pursuant to a USAID contract, HIV/AIDS prevention training classes also provided on-site.

I got to experience the painting process ourselves through a pre-organized Art Safari (approximately ZMW 250, or USD 48, per person).  Given pre-starched cushion covers to paint (right alongside the professional artisans!), the facility baked, scraped and finished them.  It made me realize how truly time-intensive the process is.  
Thanks to Kerstie, Rosie and Marie at Tribal Textiles for arranging and facilitating this wonderful experience!