100 Per Cent Silk

‘Osei-Duro produce textiles and garments in Ghana, India and Peru, applying traditional techniques including hand dyeing and weaving.’ Based in Kanda, Ghana Lee Dekel works as the company’s Production Assistant. We had a lengthy interesting chat about consumerism, artisans and Ghanaian textiles.

How did you find your position at Osei-Duro?

I began working with Osei-Duro as an intern in the summer of 2015. The owners are both young, ambitious women who have poured their souls into the project of merging unique traditional textile techniques with modern design. I was immediately inspired by their ability to balance creativity with hard work and realism. We have an immense amount of respect for everyone we work with at every level of the company.

After the internship I was offered a position managing the work we do in Ghana, from textile sourcing to packing and shipping. Every season we try and introduce new local skills, from weaving to brass-making, and improve upon the ones we’re already using. The work we do in the studio is mostly research and development. We source images and inspiration to give to the artisans to create samples for yardage. The rest of our production happens in different artisan and tailoring centres around the country.

Loose sheath dress with lapel collar. Mother of pearl buttons. Hand dyed and batiked silk

What did you do before working at Osei Duro?

My undergraduate degree is in the History of Science, where I tried to focus as much as I could on material culture. My interest in clothing has always been through a social and historical lens – how garments influence people’s actions and vice versa.  Halfway through my degree I met Eileen Fisher and decided to work there for a summer. It was a great experience to see the work her team puts into the fit of her clothing and the sourcing of fabrics. The ethics of the company are really spot on and women feel amazing in her garments. After that I began taking courses in fashion design and textiles at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, concurrently with my other undergrad.

Loose A-line shaped dress with 3/4 sleeves. Inseam pockets and sweeping hemline. Hand batiked and dyed in Ghana.

Have you visited many other places in Ghana? 

One of my first assignments for Osei-Duro was a trip to the north to research woven and indigo-dyed cloth. I visited a village about 3 hours outside of Tamale that requires a bus and ferry to reach it.  Almost everyone who lives there grew up dying yarn and weaving strip-cloth, it was so surreal to see. The indigo dyers work in the same large vats their forefathers dug in the ground and their arms and clothes have a deep blue ombre colour on them. We’ve been sending them silk and rayon yardage to dye and it comes out really well. We’ve also been sourcing the strip cloth fabric they weave from indigo-dyed yarn. It’s normally joined to make batakaris – a wide smock that is an important part of ceremonial dress in the north but is now worn casually throughout Ghana.

100% hand dyed linen carry-all with outside pocket.

Kind of like the Kente strips?

Yes but the cloth used for Batakaris has a simpler pattern and a more narrow width. It’s sold by the roll and was once used as currency. You can trace historical trade routes in West Africa by following the width of the cloth being produced in each area!

Do you get to find all the different artisans in Ghana?

Yes, it’s my favourite part of the job. I found it so fascinating to see how the strip cloth is woven only by men and it’s done on a narrow loom which hangs from a tree. Women weave as well but they do it on floor looms and the cloth is much wider. It’s also not just about finding the most beautiful product, you also have to find an artisan who can collaborate to meet your volumes and deadlines as handwoven cloth is usually bespoke.

It’s very much a part of Ghanaian culture to have clothes especially made as opposed to buying into larger volumes of produced garments. 

Yes! This is one of the reasons we love being in Ghana – the relationship that people have with clothing as something precious and lasting is so refreshing, and it’s because they know what it takes to make a garment. For example, in bespoke outfits the seam allowances are often left 1” or bigger so that the garment can be let out as the wearer grows in size. It would be antithetical to see this in a fast fashion garment because the goal is to make it as cheap as possible, so the less fabric the better.

I think it’s incredible how open people are in Ghana about sharing their work in fashion and textiles. Sometimes the fashion industry can be secretive and people don’t really want to disclose too much about what they do.

It’s a discussion we’re having more and more. At Osei-Duro we put a lot of work into developing new techniques with our dyers to suit our demands and as a small label we naturally want to keep some exclusivity. On the other hand, one of our main goals as a brand is to create a sustainable job market for artisans with specialised techniques. One of our batikers is currently overloaded with work but can’t find anyone willing to apprentice with him.

Right now, the Ghanaian government is investing a lot into making Africa the new China. We want to show that there is a demand for the beautiful textile techniques that are unique to this country, not just cheap labour. The more brands that come and seek these textiles, the more local people will see it as a viable work option and an industry can develop.

What are some of the difficulties you find working with the artisans in Ghana?

Sourcing might actually be our biggest challenge because without a consistent source of dye and fabric it makes it impossible to do anything. We have to import most of our fabrics to be dyed here, which is a barrier almost no local designer can afford to overcome.

Ahhhh that’s such a shame.

Life is very unpredictable here and it makes it difficult for anyone to scale up their business and the government is increasingly placing the burden of bad infrastructure on its citizens. People are currently paying more for electricity than rent.

I guess every country has its own financial strains and burdens. Do you have a favourite area in Ghana for textiles?

I was really excited to meet the female weavers in Northern Ghana. The fabric they produce there uses a lot of lurex and is similar to Aso-Oke from Nigeria.

Lee’s bag collaboration with TIGRA TIGRA

 How are you finding working in Ghana?

I love it, I really do. Aesthetically, the urban landscape is right up my alley – everyone paints their house or shop in these wonderful candy colours and patterns – something that always manages to cheer me up when I’m having a bad day. I also have an incredible group of friends – stylists, musicians, artists and photographers who are constantly inspiring me to try harder. People are so fearless in how they dress too; it’s had a really positive influence on my style. I’ve never walked out the house in an outfit and felt like it’s too much.

Lee in her custom made fabric

What other countries have you visited in Africa?

I’ve been to Burkina Faso. There’s a market in a town called Dori near the Sahel that sells all kinds of amazing products like blankets and patchwork quilts from Tuareg and Fulani groups. The Fulani sellers were completely decked out in silver, my eyes were popping out of my head from the moment I entered. I’ve always been interested in photography but coming to Ghana and being able to travel in Africa has got me obsessed, I don’t go anywhere without a phone or a camera. 

I’d love to visit Nigeria one day, the textiles there are out of control. Maki Oh’s work is incredible and very poetic. Nike Olaniyi is also a powerhouse designer who has her own crafts centre where she teaches traditional textile arts to young Nigerians for free.

What are some of your favourite pieces from Osei-Duro?

I’m really excited about our upcoming SS17 collection. We have a wrap dress that uses 4 yards of silk I can’t wait to swath myself in.

What are your plans for the future?

Down the line I want to open up a shop/textile gallery in my hometown of Toronto. I’d like to work with the different immigrant communities to source textiles for exhibits as well as garments I’ll design. The results of the recent US election has opened my eyes to the depth of the xenophobia that exists in North America, so my goal is to celebrate these communities by working with them to create beautiful shows and garments. Working with Osei-Duro has shown me how fashion and textiles can be points of departure for more intimate conversations between communities. Too many stores are just a collection of ‘ethically sourced’ goods from different parts of the world, where the customer can buy something and feel good but will leave the store completely bereft of any knowledge or appreciation for the provenance of what they just bought.

You can shop Osei-Duro here and follow Lee on Instagram here.

Pictures of models from Osei-Duro’s website other images are from my trip to Ghana during summer. You can see more images on my Instagram using the hashtag ‘EmbellishedTalkinGhana’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *