The Attraction of Cloth
by Rebecca Reynolds, President and Founder, Rebecca Reynolds Consulting
My travel consultant asked me to make a list of all the things I wanted to do on my trip to South Africa. This set me to dreaming and soon, I had a long list of possibilities. Near the top were textiles, right up there with the Big Five—elephants and leopards and all.
I can’t say what made me think of fabric, but I do know that shortly afterward, I came across this image of artist Grace Ndiritu's piece featuring dutch wax cloth, the daring descendent of Indonesian batiks. And as a kind of pre-trip meditation, I'd gaze at the intensely saturated colors and brilliant patterns, and feel myself deeply alive. As though I could taste them. As though I was being fed right through my eyes.
In Cape Town, I had a marvelous guide, Jackie, who showed me the city’s many famous sites—Table Mountain, Cape Point, and Kirstenbosch. But one afternoon, she caught me by surprise. We were wandering around, poking our heads into various shops on Long Street, when she entered a skinny, nondescript door. Following her, I put one foot on the threshold, looked in, and gasped.
The color, the beadwork, the embroidery, the uncommon patterns and whimsical combinations, the jaunty, riotous beauty exploding in this tiny shop stopped my breath. It was something like, or perhaps exactly like, my first candy shop. But instead of chocolates and gumdrops and peppermint sticks, there were kentes and mud cloth, dutch wax, and kubas; there were brocades and georges, and so many more.
They hung in every color and hue folded neatly on racks high above, and those stitched into exotic confections were draped over hangers below. Running my fingers over one after another, I coveted them and all their flirty gaiety, standout finery, their relentless joy.
We didn't have much time that afternoon, but I knew leaving without a purchase just wasn't possible. As I gazed up at all the color, something dark and yummy caught my eye. Mud cloth.
Mud cloth is from Mali. It's a more rough-hewn fabric than the dainty dutch wax. It too comes in a variety of colors, but all tones of earth: browns, umber, sienna and black. The patterns, of course, aren't just for beauty; they tell a story. An ancient story, the kind so at ease with itself, it's hospitable to interpretation.
While Jackie bargained with the shop owner, I fingered my money, eager to pay him so I could cradle my new treasure.
Back in the States, I pulled the mud cloth from my bag, feeling its sturdy fibers and smelling the plants in its dye. I wondered about its symbols, etched white across an ebony background. A web search led me to the basic meanings of some of the more typical mud cloth patterns
; mine was among them. Evidently, it announces a person brave and fearless. I liked that.
As I sat tracing the symbols with my fingers, I wondered too, how to explain the pull of that little shop, of its plentitude of cloth and dye, of this humble piece of fabric. Gazing into its calming darkness, I saw hands.
Women's hands and men's, taking care to weave and soak, to strip leaves and bark, to crush and boil and stir. To rinse and hang, spool and thread, and push the needle through. These hands busy under a caring gaze, whose lives are silently sung into the fabric.
A woman's story, inside a village's story, inside a tribal story, inside the human story, each plays out across the cloth. And deep in its fiber is the love of hands that create such beauty, so that all who see it are awash in its colors and patterns. This explosion of story told in an infinite array of neatly folded cloth is the delight of that little Cape Town shop.
But with the mud cloth spread out across my lap, I understood why it hadn’t been enough just to look. To touch the cloth, to let it run through your fingers, to adorn your body with it, to drape it around your life, makes all of what made it part of you. Weave, color, playful combination, and careful hem draws us in, as we inspect each tiny stitch.
How remarkable that a simple piece of cloth has the ability, in its quiet way, to bring us closer together.
P.S. The little shop is called Mali South, on Long Street in Cape Town, that I found thanks to Hills of Africa
This piece is the sixth in a series on South Africa by leadership expert and consultant, Rebecca Reynolds. Reynolds works with leaders, explores leadership issues and contexts, and writes on leadership lessons. This series will explore leadership themes from her South Africa trip. Reynolds may be reached at RebeccaReynoldsConsulting.com. Previous posts: part I, part II, part III
, part IV
, part V