Hand-woven cotton garments, also called shemma, were traditionally worn by the christian populations of the northern and central highlands of Ethiopia and the central and southern highlands of Eritrea.
By Sinette Hesselink

Handloom weaving is traditionally done by male craftsmen, while the spinning of cotton is generally done by women. There are a lot of regional styles and traditional graphic designs. For example, the Dorze, the Konso and the Wolayta people of southwest Ethiopia, are known for their iconic red, yellow and black denguza pattern.

Today, the work itself remains largely the same: fabrics are woven on looms using sets of white and colored yarns that are interlaced at right angles. But the traditional weavers in Ethiopia, who were losing their jobs due to a decline in local demand for their goods, now work for international design brands that came to their rescue..


Ethiopian model Liya Kebede discovered the decline of the weaving craft during her frequent visits to her home country. Recognizing the beauty, quality and historic significance of weaving, Kebede started Lemlem in 2007 to preserve the art of weaving and to create economic independence for craftsmen and women who used to have a marginalised status.

Kebede is also the founder of the Liya Kebede foundation. It’s mission is to improve the lives of women in Africa by addressing one of their top health concerns: better access to good maternity care.


Another example of mixing traditional weaving with contemporary design is Mahlet Afework. For her brand Mafimafi she works exclusively with hand-woven fabrics made by women and creates fresh and contemporary collections.

Have a look at the beautiful scarves of Taarik too! Pushing themselves creatively these people produce contemporary pieces with ancient fabrics, giving space to the diversity and depth of Ethiopian culture and tradition.

Sinette Hesselink is a designer and trend forecaster based in Amsterdam

Top image, from left to right: Lemlem, Mafimafi, Taarik



  1. I have patented an upgrade to the hand loom to make the weavers effort very minimal and they will likely continue weaving traditionally. If we apply this mechanism any weaver can weave with a single hand. If you are interested contact me.

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