Why Are Fabrics From Africa So Expensive? - Sika’a

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June 14, 2021 3 min read

Over the last few decades, consumers have grown increasingly to use low-quality fast fashion fabrics. These fabrics are perfect for mass-producing the kind  disposable clothing that 

has become a staple of most people's wardrobes in the west. But while access to affordable clothing is critical, consumers have grown so accustomed to these low prices that many can struggle to understand why other fabrics are so much more expensive. African fabrics come with a premium price tag, but they are also of premium quality. The high quality is just one reason that the additional costs are justified.

Organic materials

Manufacturers need to use equally cheap raw materials to produce cheap clothes that underpin the modern fast fashion industry. The financial cost of fast fashion clothes might be small, but the environmental prices are enormous.

The fabrics that go into these clothes use non-renewable fossil fuels in their production methods. These fabrics are commonly known as 'petrochemical textiles', which should give you an idea of how unnatural and harmful the environment is. These fabrics have their place in the fashion industry. Still, when they account for most fabrics used by the most prominent clothing manufacturers, they cause problems beyond the industry.

On the other hand, African fabrics such as Mudcloth also known as Bogolan, Kente and traditional Tie-Dye are ethically made from natural, organic materials. There is a thriving market for in-expensive, mass-produced clothing made to look like it's made from authentic African fabrics, but these are made using synthetic fibres. Genuine African fabrics are produced from locally harvested materials. Many begin with cotton, but fibres can also come from the bark of several trees. 

Growing, harvesting, and processing these natural fibres is much more expensive and labour intensive than bulk-buying synthetic materials. More expensive raw materials inevitably lead to a more costly final product. This process is one of the main reasons that African fabrics cost more than synthetic alternatives.

Production costs

Authentic African fabrics are still often made using traditional manufacturing processes. For example, Kente cloth is revered in many African countries and is widely regarded as a prestige item. Weaving Kente cloth doesn't just take a long time to weave, but it also required a great deal of skill. Kente is woven by the Ashanti people, who reside in southern Ghana. Historically, it was worn by nobility in the Ashanti empire. Today, it is a common sight at distinguished events across the African continent.

African print clothing is available everywhere today, but most of these clothes are made from synthetic fabrics with African-style designs printed onto them. Producing authentic African print fabric today is still

labour-intensive, even with all our modern technology and is more complex than just printing a design onto any old material.

The process begins with raw cotton yarns being spun into woven cloth. This cloth is then bleached white and stretched. The desired design is rendered digitally and engraved onto copper rollers. It is then printed onto the fabric using melted wax. The fabric is then bathed in indigo dye, so the exposed areas are dyed.

Specialist machinery cracks the wax and creates a bubble or marble effect. Once the wax is removed, it is recycled to use in future fabric production. A range of finishes can be applied to the final fabric, further adding to the costs.

Anyone who cares about ethical manufacturing should prefer African fabrics to the alternatives. The final product costs might be higher, but the human and environmental prices are significantly lower than factories churning out textiles made from synthetic fabrics. 

Why it's worth the extra cost

Authentic African fabrics aren't just high-quality, sustainable fabrics; they are also culturally significant. The African textile industry faces numerous pressures, and there is a real danger that the entire sector could shrink significantly and eventually disappear. A big part of the problem is that while consumers love African fashion and print designs, most people don't give a second thought about where the clothes they buy come from.

At a glance, the cheap, mass-produced clothes coming out of China featuring African style patterns look the same as the genuine article to most people. Consumers tend to care about the price above all else, but authentic African clothing is worth the premium price tag.

How you can help

Purchasing authentic African textiles and clothing designed by an African designer is an opportunity to support African fashion and help keep the traditions and ethos that underpin it alive. The extra costs of African fabric are much more than just its premium quality. Supporting an affordable, sustainable brand over any of the myriad online sellers offering cheap imitations of genuine African fabrics is always worth paying more for. If we as consumers are willing to pay more for ethical manufacturing and sustainable sourcing, we can contribute to a brighter future for fashion, Africa and the world.

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