Tribal Textiles

Unique hand-painted textiles from the heart of the African bush

The South Luangwa National Park in Zambia is world renowned for superb game viewing in a remote and beautiful wilderness area. As a tourist visiting the park the last thing you would expect to find there is a creative hand painting textiles business producing stunning, high quality home furnishings . And yet that is exactly what Tribal Textiles do.

Tribal, as it’s known to people in the area, was started nearly twenty five years ago by director and owner Gillie Lightfoot, just outside the National Park.

“The textiles started from simple beginnings, under the big Acacia trees in a small safari camp on the banks of the Luangwa River. We set up some makeshift tables on logs, working out the technique took time and patience, and with limited resources, no electricity or running water, Tribal slowly emerged under the limitations that are now its trade mark.  Inspiration for design came from the environment and the wildlife on the doorstep of this remote little industry.  Tribal grew slowly with the support of local Safari operators and tourism, orders were made on the radio, in those days no phones or emails let alone internet were available. “

The technique used is a relatively simple starch resist method derived from Mali mud cloth. It begins with the cutting, sewing & fraying of 100% cotton fabric. Individual designs are drawn onto the cotton with a starch solution made by mixing flour and water. The starched pieces are then dried in the African sun before being hand-painted by local Zambian men and women. The paints are mixed by hand using primary pigments and a base emulsion: colours are matched by eye to swatches created by Gillie in different colourway combinations. After painting, the pieces are baked which makes the dye colour fast and fully washable. Following cooking, each piece is washed and the softened starch design is carefully scraped off to reveal the finished product. The pieces are then hung up to dry in the sunshine before being sewn up into finished items and packed away for export or transferred to Tribal’s own shop.

Today, Tribal Textiles employs over 100 local people and exports to more than 20 countries worldwide. The company is one of the biggest employers in the area, providing sustainable employment and training in an area where jobs are scarce. They also co-fund the local community school, Malimba, and support the local Hanada Orphanage.

As well as a thriving retail outlet in Mfuwe and an established export market, Tribal have recently launched an online shop, shipping around the world direct from their Mfuwe HQ. It’s an exciting development for the company and a challenge being so remote, but with the majority of retail businesses going online they are moving with the times and bringing Luangwa to the world.

Gillie continues to work on new ranges with Tribal as they develop different techniques and systems that keep things fresh and modern. Tribal will shortly release a vibrant new screen printed range that will hopefully open up a new interiors market for them.  She has also expanded to create a sister company Jackal and Hide, that works with local Zambian leather and artisans. Watch this space for the next chapter.

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