The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 18th August 2011

From Aksumawit to Zed: Ethiopian Embroidered Dress Designs

Given by - John Mellors

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan

John told us that during a 3-month stay in Aksum in 2010 he developed an interest in the locally made dresses - specifically the ones with hand embroidered front panels (which are known as tilf). John explained that the embroiderers have to match as closely as possible the pattern (which is known as tilat) that has already been hand woven into the back hem of the dresses.

In collecting such dresses, John was following a well trodden path. As he pointed out, following the 1868 Magdala campaign, a collection was established which was donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum. This contains examples of tilf that adorned the dresses of Empress Teruworq Wube, Theodore's wife. The British Museum is in possession of a collection established by Captain Tristram Speedy (1836-1911), with a donation by James Theodore Bent (1852-1897) in 1893. Nor is Britain alone in recognising the beauty of tilf as a fashion art form. Several European institutions, including the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam, have dresses.

The first commercial embroidery shop in Aksum opened, we were told, in 1992. Basic designs that are used for tilf include crosses, chevrons, chains and checkerboards. A la mode designs today include 'Obama' (now renamed 'Abyssinia') and 'Python'.

AksumawitPrime MinisterZed
Photos © John Mellors
Prime MinisterZed

Cotton for the dresses is grown in Ethiopia and is spun by local women. Men weave the cloth. Coloured cotton for embroidery is imported from India. Most of the embroiderers are men. Of an estimated 150 embroiderers in Aksum, John saw only two women.

Traditional Clothes Shop in Aksum 2011
Traditional Clothes Shop in Aksum 2011
Photo - © John Mellors

With full tilf, tilat and scarf the dresses, we were told, sold at prices that varied from 2,600 to 4,500 birr for the very latest designs. At approximately, 27 birr to the pound, we are talking serious wealth: from £100 to £175.

John diverted for a short time away from Ethiopia to show us a wax print cotton cloth made by the Dutch company Vlisco in 1963 - along with many, many slides of how this one fabric has been used for clothing throughout the world over the following decades. Millions of metres of this particular Vlisco wax print have been sold (along with many copies and imitations). The pattern is clearly inspired by the embroidery on the Ethiopian dresses brought back to Europe in the late 1800s and the archives at Vlisco have confirmed that the designer based his ideas on a 'coptic cloth'. Research is continuing to identify the precise Ethiopian dress that inspired the design - so that it can perhaps be labelled as the biggest selling Ethiopian embroidery design of all time!

John had brought a small collection of dresses he had acquired in Aksum to the lecture and the Anglo-Ethiopian Society audience were simply fascinated. Question after question was fired at the speaker. The entire collection was shown at the Anglo-Ethiopian Society Summer Fair at St. George's Church, Tufnell Park and another small number was also given prime time at the London Habesha Traditional and Modern Fashion Show organised by Lili Assefa later in the month where John displayed dresses to an audience of over two hundred.

John Mellors is greatly to be congratulated on his initiative which has been much appreciated and adds greatly to our knowledge of a traditional skill which is, thankfully, alive, well and prospering in modern Ethiopia.

First Published in News File Winter 2011

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