TRC Blog: Textile Moments

Shopping for Kanga's in East Africa

Two women from Zanzibar wearing a kanga. The woman to the right has a kanga with the text "Alaa kumbe", which means something like 'Good gracious me!'. Photograph by Kate Kingsford.

Two women from Zanzibar wearing a kanga. The woman to the right has a kanga with the text "Alaa kumbe", which means something like 'Good gracious me!'. Photograph by Kate Kingsford.

Kangas are large cotton cloths that are worn by women living along the whole of the East African coast, especially in Kenya, Tanzania and on the island of Zanzibar. Their characteristic feature is a short text printed on the cloth. The texts are often funny. They reveal some ' home truths', or they may tell something about the wearer's political opinion, etc. The TRC collection contains many examples of these garments, and in late 2009 / early 2010 the TRC mounted an exhibition on the subject. Below is a blog written by Kate Kingsford, now from Leiden, who is particularly fascinated by kangas and over the years has made a large collection of these marvellous garments:

"Shopping for kangas in Tanzania is always a very social activity. As I searched through the piles of kangas at the market in Moshi, Tanzania, the shopkeeper made tea and helped me decipher the layers of meaning in the messages. My favourite: “Mimi ni pweza mambo yangu hayatoweza”. Literally, this means, “I am an octopus, you can’t mess with my affairs”. Several local women passing the shop were happy to explain why they might wear it - as a warning to another woman who was flirting with your husband, or a way of telling a neighbour to stop spreading dangerous gossip, or perhaps to tell your mother-in-law not to interfere with your family.

Kangas are a way of saying the unsayable, and always open to interpretation. But the Tanzanian elections are only a month away, and political kangas are much less subtle. Fatuma, the shopkeeper, was happy to sell me a dress in the bright red and blue of Chadema, the opposition, but was adamant that I wouldn’t find anything in the colours of CCM, the ruling party for the past fifty years. A little further into the market, however, I came across one small shop decked out in green and yellow, offering discount prices on CCM kangas. A lot of people have bought CCM kangas and Chadema dresses, apparently, but no one is wearing them in the streets; while there is still a chance that the elections will be violent, it’s better to wait to see who wins before flaunting political affiliations. “Keep it for after the election!” warned another woman at the market. Walking home, I followed her advice and wore the octopus kanga with pride.

Kate Kingsford, 20 September 2015


Stadskanaal embroidered kerchief, part 4

A little while ago we had a Textile Moment (well several, actually) about a kerchief, donated to the TRC, which had the embroidered signatures of a group of women, an inscription that mentioned Stadskanaal (town), Ons Belang (factory) and two dates, in May and September 1945. In the various blogs it was noted that we were slowly coming to the conclusion that the handkerchief was embroidered by various women in an internment camp for Dutch citizens who had worked with the Germans during the Second World War. The internment camp was located on the premises of the Ons Belang factory. In one of these blogs we identified the swimmer Tony Bijland, who during the war used to compete in various German organised swimming contests and apparently was a member of the Jeugdstorm, the Dutch equivalent of the German Hitler Jugend.

This idea is getting more substance, as one of our student volunteers was able last month (August 2015) to decipher the names of three sisters in one corner of the kerchief. The names are Iskje, Trijntje (?) and Griet, who would be Grietje van der Meulen (1922-2001), Trijntje van der Meulen (1924-2003) and Iskje van der Meulen (1930-1982). Various members of the large Van der Meulen family of Lippenhuizen (Friesland), as is clear from many sources, were actively involved with the NSB (Dutch nazi party before and during WWII) movement in the 1930s and early 1940s. The father of the three girls, Luite van der Meulen (1894-1964), was arrested by the resistance movement in Ureterp, in April 1945 (the same place where he died in 1964). Contemporary reports describe him as a "gevreesd boerenleider".

The kerchief was bought a few years ago in a flea market in Leiden and given to the TRC in 2015, so one of the questions that we had was how did this kerchief get to Leiden? We may have found an answer to this question, the youngest Van der Meulen sister, Martha (who is not mentioned on the kerchief) died in 2008 in Leiden at the age of 77. In 1945 she would have been 14, so perhaps regarded as being too young to be in such a camp, but it is possible that it was via Martha that this kerchief came to Leiden.

Finally, another name on the kerchief can be identified: that of Uta Nieper, who was Uta Maya Ellen Carola Nieper (1916-2006), born in Hamburg, Germany. She died in Gouda, Zuid-Holland, the Netherlands. She married Lukas Jan Pronk (from Emmen, Drenthe; member SS; died in 1994) in Groningen on 22 June 1944. 

An interesting book on the subject is by Koos Groen, Fout en Niet Goed: De Vervolging van Collaboratie en Verraad na de Tweede Wereldoorlog. Hilversum 2009.

Gillian and Willem Vogelsang, 5 September 2015


Indonesian batik

TRC volunteer Shelley Anderson’s Textile Moment took place during a recent batik workshop in Yogyakarta, Indonesia: “Batik is everywhere in this city, which has been called the cultural heart of Indonesia. While the shirts and dresses used for daily wear are factory produced, the patterns are based on traditional batik designs. A popular downtown department store offers batik demonstrations and sells supplies; young fashion designers here and in the capital Jakarta incorporate batik into their work.

Batik comes from two Javanese words which translate as ‘to write dots’. This wax resist dye technique was used in ancient Egypt, in China and India, and in Africa. A pattern is first drawn on the fabric. The same pattern is then redrawn with hot wax, applied either with a canting (a small piece of wood with a metal container with a spout attached) or a metal block stamp called a cap. The fabric is then dyed until the desired colour or colours are reached. The wax is removed, either by brushing or by boiling the cloth.

While batik may not have originated in Indonesia, it certainly developed into a highly respected art in Java. A pattern is first drawn on the fabric. The same pattern is then redrawn with hot wax, applied either with a canting (a small piece of wood with a metal container with a spout attached) or a metal block stamp called a cap. There were special batiks used in ceremonies for mothers-to-be, for new born babies, for a ritual when a baby took its first steps, and for the dead. The patterns and colours used in a batik showed one’s ethnicity and status. Certain batik patterns were reserved exclusively for royalty—and royal batiks were among the goods thrown into volcanoes during ceremonies to prevent eruptions. In 2009 UNESCO declared Indonesian batik a part of humanity’s intangible heritage. This textile has quite a history!”

8 August 2015


  1. Wife of the Sultan of Yogyakarta giving a speech dressed in batik.
  2. Examples of royal batik from the Kraton (Palace) in Yogyakarta.
  3. Batik demonstration at local department store.
  4. Batik supplies for sale in department store
Wife of the Sultan of Yogyakarta giving a speech, dressed in batik.

Wife of the Sultan of Yogyakarta giving a speech, dressed in batik.

Examples of royal batik from the kraton (palace) in Yogyakarta

Examples of royal batik from the kraton (palace) in Yogyakarta

Batik demonstration at local department store

Batik demonstration at local department store

Batik supplies for sale in department store

Batik supplies for sale in department store



Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse, La femme au luth (1949-1950)

Henri Matisse, La femme au luth (1949-1950)

TRC volunteer Shelley Anderson had a textile moment recently at an exhibition on the work of painter Henri Matisse: “The French painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was an avid textile collector, perhaps as a result of being born in the textile town of La Cateau-Cambrésis. He often painted textiles in his works in great detail, like the beautiful table cloths in The Red Room (1908) or Still Life with Blue Tablecloth (1909). He also collected fabrics which he would have made into costumes for his models to pose in, such as a silk and cotton skirt modeled by Lydia Delectorskaya in the painting Femme en bleu (1937). He also made many sketches of a Romanian blouse whose embroidery fascinated him. The exhibition of Matisse’s work at the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam, the Netherlands) also displayed a costume made from felt that he designed for the ballet Le chant du rossignolc (1920) and several tapestries based on his paintings (La Femme au Luth, 1949-1950, by Gorbelins, Paris). As part of his design for his famous Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France, he designed not only the stain glass windows and wall paintings, but also the chasubles for the priest. It was a delight to learn how this versatile genius also loved textiles.”

8 August 2015


Brugge, Belgium

Last week a few days in Brugge, Belgium, have left several textile moments. The first was the visit to the Kantcentrum ('Lace Centre', Balstraat 16, 8000 Brugge, Belgium), which is located in a former lace school that was run by the Apostoline Sisters. The exhibitons are not large, but there is an interesting film about lace with Frieda Sorber, as well as some examples of older forms of bobbin and needlepoint lace. The shop is worth a visit for practising lace makers.

The Kantcentrum, 'Lace Centre', Brugge, Belgium

The Kantcentrum, 'Lace Centre', Brugge, Belgium

Opposite the Kantcentrum is the 't Apostelientje, a small shop run by Anne Thijs who is very knowledgeable about the history and types of bobbin laces, especially the Flemish and French forms. She very kindly agreed to help the TRC in bulding up a lace reference collection over the next few years.

Around the corner from the Kantcentrum is the Jeruzalemkerk, a private chapel that includes five embroideries on dispay, a 19th century banner with metal thread embroidery; three 18th century panels depicting the Virgin with Child, St. Catherine and the last one with St. Michael. All of which are worked in silk on a linen ground. The last embroidery is on the frontal of the high altar. The frontal is embellished with three applied, embroidered bands, each with two figures, taken from a medieval orphrey. The figures include male and female saints, as well as the Virgin and a figure of Christ.

Also in Bruges, Willem and I visited the Groeningemuseum, which has a collection of early Flemish paintings. A number of the paintings on display provide details about contempory ecclesiastical and domestic embroideries. Two paintings are of particular note with respect to embroidery, one by Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) "The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele" (1432) and other by Ambrosius Benson (1495-1550), "St. Mary Maglelaine" (c. 1525-1549).

Gillian Vogelsang, 26 July 2015


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Opening times: Monday to Thursday: 10.00-16.00 hrs, other days by appointment. Holidays: until 11 August

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The TRC is dependent on project support and individual donations. All of our work is being carried out by volunteers. To support the TRC activities, we therefore welcome your financial assistance: donations can be transferred to bank account number NL39 INGB 000 298 2359, in the name of the Stichting Textile Research Centre.
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