It would be safe to assume that everyone reading this is familiar with Shiro Meda, but as a refresher, let’s briefly describe it. Shiro Meda, located around 6 kilo, is a market that mostly deals in everything traditional attire. From the yarn spinners to pattern designers everyone involved in the production of traditional dresses can be found here with their expertise and items.
A Brief History
Like many things in Ethiopian history, artisanry has had constant brushes with a poor/rich dichotomy that bordered (and oftentimes was) feudal relations. The first weavers directly made clothes for the nobility. Weavers would set up their tools around the residences of noblemen and earned their wages. Weavers for the most part enjoyed a rather respectful stature as compared to other artisans. As time progressed (around the 2000s) the art of weaving was tied with child trafficking and forced labor. this was stopped due to government effort and slowly the weavers regained their good stature. This time as experts in fashion.
More than that, Ethiopia and Eritrea are home to weavers the likes of which aren’t found elsewhere. Their skills, creative eye, and knowledge are unique expressions of Ethio-Eritrean identities. However, it’s something that’s somewhat stagnated. As with any other preserved artform, pressure comes with trying new things. However, this hasn’t stopped others from developing new designs and ideas.
Each culture in Ethiopia has its expression of the traditional dress and outfits that match patterns and colors associated with their culture. However, the image that comes to mind when someone says Ethiopian attire is oftentimes related to northern expressions. While some southern cultures do use the same materials and often the same process, they aren’t readily found in centers like Shiro Meda. The cultural differences aren’t often expressed and for the most part, what’s on display, is the stuff from the north. However, artisans do take special personalized orders, something that’s become increasingly common. Progressively, things are changing on that front too. The center has started to include more items from other cultures as well.
Weavers and designers enjoy a rather celebrated status today but in the past, there used to be a period where artisans of any kind used to be looked down upon. This is because the first weavers and artisans were Muslim and Falasha (Ethiopian Jew). Two identities that often clashed with the Christian kings and queens of the times.
While not for these reasons, in modern times, the sector isn’t exactly seen as a source of respectable employment mostly because of the prestige that comes with earning a university degree. University degrees are deemed to be better than anything else. When asked about this, a pattern designer replied “I have a degree and tried working in an office where I could only earn around 3-4000 birr a month. When I started this job, people didn’t support the idea. Now, I can make upwards of 10,000 birr. People are now seeing the potential of the sector for jobs.” We’re not there yet but when a designer and weaver can make good money while doing this it says something. People are seeing the value in creativity. Something that’s yet to be seen in other creative sectors.
Recently, Chinese owned companies started to manufacture en-masse, clothing items. The results were not well received. They printed the Ethiopian fabrics on cotton and started selling them here for almost half the price. At that time, there was also an unhealthy price hike with traditional attire that created a gap in the market. Naturally, the population flocked to the cheaper ready-made alternative.
What saved the sector, according to a shop owner, was the collective actions took by the artisans. They bought the Chinese made fabrics and started using them as curtains and covers. This was done to show the vast difference in terms of quality. This moment also raised an interesting point. Authenticity and craftsmanship are everything and people will be recognizant of that fact. In this case, of course, people had to see shit to recognize it but still… progress?
The moment was also a wake-up call. It was clear that customers couldn’t afford to pay the prices the artisans asked and more than that, it was clear that one-size didn’t fit all and more importantly, craftsmanship and creativity are what helps an artist survive. The industry had to shift. This change also helped catalyze a creative boom that’s slowly taking the industry to newer heights. Although not entirely attributed to the event, it was a moment that helped push things in the right direction.
Shiro Meda is a fascinating mirror to the creative life in Ethiopia. It’s an inherently collaborative space where culture thrives and at the same time, a place where the problems faced by other creatives persist.