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Published: 10 March 2018

By Andy Ross

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The textile industry in Zimbabwe

The future for the textile industry in Zimbabwe is looking up.

In the 1950's David Whitehead textiles opened a new factory in the country and started to manufacture cotton cloth for the local and export market. By the time I came along in 1969 the industry was doing well and the David Whitehead name was very well-known. 

One of my early memories of being young in Bulawayo is of a shop called Sanders which was an old-fashioned department store. The haberdashery department was a real treat with its rows of brightly coloured fabrics, ribbons, buttons, and assorted sewing equipment. Along the top of the shelves were small still-life displays, lit up and fantastical, of woodland creatures and Disney characters. (At least if memory serves correctly). It was a treasure trove of delights for someone like me and I used to love going to see the huge display windows with their wooden surrounds and looking at the cloths in bolts. 

Just down the road from home was another small haberdashery shop run by sisters. Efficiently they would measure out lengths of fabric and, making a small snip in the selvedge, rip straight across the material absolutely perfectly. 

David Whitehead has long been a favourite and, it being the seventies, the colours were bright and designs strong. Even though we were in the middle of the ferocious bush war we could still get beautiful fabrics inspired by the most up-to-date of designs from the UK and our friends, who lived on a farm in the middle of the bush, proudly decorated with atomic patterned curtains and cushions. (Have a look at this shop which sells some of those designs.)

Fast forward to 2016 when, bedevilled by incompetence and fraud, and unable to compete on the world stage with cheaper manufacturers of fabric, the factory closed its doors with huge debts that it could not service. It seemed to be the end of an era. The scraps of David Whitehead fabric that I had collected over the years suddenly became even more precious. 

Now the company has secured a government loan and begun to produce again. Zimbabwe grows some very fine cotton and the expertise that turns the raw product into quality fabric still exists. This is fantastic news for the textile industry and the people who work in it and we shall be watching the return of this company with great interest.