Getting from Malawi to Zanzibar, Textile Hunting, and Sewing a (Micro) Travel Wardrobe

November 27, 2015

Zanzibar cotton scarf

Sewing, designing textiles, and pattern drafting are what make me want to jump out of bed in the morning.   I also love to travel – but it’s hard for me to enjoy myself if the trip doesn’t include some sort of fiber-hunting component.  The creative beast is always hungry and must be fed.

A few years ago my girlfriends and I went on holiday in Zanzibar.  It was the perfect tropical island get-away.  Lots of cocktail drinking under palm trees, which was fabulous, and when I needed some design stimuli I could wander into town to buy local kanga cloth. This is the traditional “wrapper” worn by village women in Africa.

Some kanga are made locally in Tanzania while others are made overseas in India.  They feature brightly colored bold prints and Swahili proverbs.  For the tourist, a kanga is much more than a bikini cover up.  This multi-purpose sarong is endlessly useful and serves as a beach blanket, a bath towel, or even a bed sheet.  Once home, the resourceful decorator can turn her textile souvenirs into pillows or wall hangings.  My collection of these delightful fabrics is ever-growing.  How can you not buy another kanga?

In Stone Town, the main city of Zanzibar, I found a woven cloth unlike anything I had seen on the rest of the island.  While kangas are hardy and utilitarian, these wispy scarves were soft and delicate.  I fell in love…

Zanzibar cotton scarfWoven scarf found on the island of Zanzibar.

I was told these pretty scarves are made locally but I wasn’t totally convinced they didn’t come from India.  In any case, they were lovely and each one was unique.  I crossed my fingers that I had found a special local product and bought about 50 of them for gifts.  What remained I kept for myself or made into pillows.

Zoona Nova handmade pillows using cotton from ZanzibarHandmade pillows by Zoona Nova. The delicate woven cloth was found in Zanzibar.   Patchwork pillow design inspired by kantha embroidery.  Tutorial coming soon…

Since that wonderful girlfriend holiday in Zanzibar I have been dreaming of going back.  I’m itching to do a full investigation of the local textile scene – and sipping a few cocktails under a palm tree doesn’t sound too bad, either.

Now that the budget airline Fastjet has started flying into Malawi, travel around this part of Africa has become much more affordable.  A round-trip ticket between Lilongwe and Dar es Salaam is about $200.  Traveling with a full priced airline you can expect to pay around $600 for the same route.

You can also get there by land.  The bus fare from Lilongwe to Dar es Salaam is about $60 and takes around 30 hours.   If you want to take the train, you need to cross the Malawian boarder first, and make it up to the Tanzanian city of Mbeya.  A first class ticket on the Tanzanian-Zambian TAZARA train is about $60 from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam.  It won’t happen this trip, but the famous 48 hour TAZARA “safari” train from New Kapiri Mposhi (Zambia) to Dar es Salaam is high on my adventure to-do list.  I found some great information about African train travel on the website Seat 61.

I’m not yet sure how I’ll be getting up to Zanzibar.  But I just got my multiple entry visa (yeah!) from the Tanzanian High Commission here in Malawi, and I’m excited to get moving.

My next project is to design travel clothing with hidden pockets (don’t tell) that can fit into a school backpack along with everything else I need for my trip.  I need to create a mini travel wardrobe that won’t scream, “backpacker on a budget!” but will still be easy to pack, wear, and wash.

My stash might not be up to the challenge.  It’s overflowing with Italian silk and woolens but there are hardly any cottons or knits left in the pile.  (Andrea loves to buy me these luxury fabrics when he’s home visiting. Very sweet.  But we live in a hot, dusty village in Africa with no dry cleaner in sight…)  This won’t be an easy assignment…

I’ll post updates as the design process develops.  I’d love to hear from you about any must-haves in your travel wardrobe.  And let me know if you’ve been textile hunting in Tanzania!


    1. Hello Tamara, I love reading your posts, you pass on the good vibes to your readers with every line. I love seashells( and there is no lovelier pink than that shade of pink ). If you get a chance you will have to share more pics of your nature findings too. I am so happy for all your projects, keep it up. I am going through a tough period and I don’t seem to be able to put my head down to do stitching and embroidery as I used to, I have lots of ideas but when I get to the table, they all fizzle out. Maybe I need a holiday or at least a cocktail. It has been ages since I had a piña colada. Good luck with the mini wardrobe, half the fun is in the searching. Big hugs from hot Canberra.

      1. Hi Marce,
        I hear you about needing a holiday or a cocktail…or both. Sometimes I feel isolated in my village, and the creative energy takes a nosedive. When I get out and see new things my mood (and energy) completely changes. Long walks clear my head and invite new ideas, but with this heat (!) it’s almost impossible to leave the house. And now the rains have come, so it’s mud mud mud outside… I’m sending you a cocktail *Cheers!* from Malawi. You’ve brightened up my rainy day and I’m sending back the good vibes!

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