I have to admit I stumbled onto Hackney Museum because we were early for a Christmas pantomime at the Hackney Empire theatre.  In fact, I didn’t even know there was a Hackney Museum. But we were cold and the museum was heated (and free!).

The Hackney Museum is having a special exhibition, African Threads:  Hackney Style, on the ties the area has with the export of African fabric.  It provided a fascinating look into not onlythe area’s history but also multi-cultural London today.  Although short and sweet, this exhibit ties a lot of historical information together that you may have learned in bits and pieces previously.


History and African Style in Hackney

Here are some interesting things I learned from the African Threads:  Hackney Style exhibit.  I also learned that my daughter thought cotton came from an animal just like leather, silk and wool.  So it was educational for all of us!

The Royal African Company

There was a Royal African Company set up in 1660 to further British trade with West Africa. It was meant to emulate the success of the British East India Company established in 1600 for trade with India.  The East India Company had made its investors fabulously wealthy and they were interested in investing in a new venture.

Over 400 years, 50% of all goods traded with West Africa was textiles. The Royal African Company traded a lot of British wool to West Africa.  Don’t ask me why …. because nothing looks chicer in the sun than Harris Tweed?!

The British East India company brought in Indian fabrics like calico, chintz, muslin and cotton to Britain.  The Royal African Company (and later other independents) also traded these fabrics to West Africa.

Ghanaians at a market

You need lots of fabric to create these Ghanian outfits.

What did the Royal African Company take away from West Africa?  Slaves mostly. The Royal African Company itself traded about 100,000 slaves.  A lot of the money that flowed into the City of London during those years was financed by the profitable sale of slaves in the New World.

In addition to slaves, the British also traded raw materials such as gold, silver and ivory to take to the New World.  Lots of stuff involving human or animal suffering.

The Need for Textiles in West Africa

So, why were the West Africans so enthusiastic to buy fabric?  How much fabric do you need in the hot and humid climate of sub-Saharan Africa?  I would have thought it was like selling ice to the Eskimos.

The merchants were onto that problem too! Islamic traders from the 7th century (and later European traders) changed the clothing patterns of the West Africans when they converted the locals to their new religions.

Although people used to wear minimal clothing, the religious converts needed more modest clothes.  The new clothes meant the locals needed a lot more fabric because they covered up the whole body – gown-like outfits such as caftans, baggy shorts and turbans.  West Africans needed to import the textiles to meet the demand.

African Style in Hackney

Senegalese women in traditional boubou (a caftan).

Not only did outsiders change the locals’ religion but also their cultural habits so that they needed the outsiders’ trade to comply with said religions.  Clever, no?

Marketing lesson number 1. Create the market if you can’t find it.

African Clothing and Symbols

All this fabric created cultural unity among the local peoples.  African clothing designs were used to identify groups to which people belonged such as the distinctive patterns of the Ndebele tribe in South Africa.

Symbols and colours in West Africa had their own meaning which was briefly explained in the exhibit.

African Style in Hackney

Some patterns and their meaning

For example, Kente cloth is the national dress of Ghana.  Each pattern has a meaning either rooted in the culture or identified with a certain king.  In historic times, kente cloth used to be only worn by the King and he had complete control over it.  The patterns in the fabric could be made even more spectacular with silk thread bought from the Europeans.

Marketing lesson no. 2:  Upsell, upsell, upsell.

The Rise, Fall and Rise of Hackney

Remember that I said the investors in both the East Indian Company and the Royal Africa Company were largely the same?  Yes, these merchants made a killing in trade. They, of course, needed homes to show off their new-found wealth.

In the 17th century, Hackney, Shoreditch and Stoke Newington (now the London borough of Hackney) were little villages surrounded by farmland. The Tudors had made the area fashionable because it was close to the City of London but nicer and cleaner.

By the 18th century, Hackney was taken over by these rich merchants who built their mansions in the area.  They were also joined by the elite of the new Bank of England (established in 1694).  When the Huguenots settled in Spitalfields, their silk-weaving skills would have fit right into the area.

The great literary figure of the day, Samuel Johnson, dreamed of retiring to Hackney.  Sort of like people dream of retiring to Hawaii or Florida today. How times have changed!

Hackney Wick

Street art in Hackney Wick. image credit: Maureen Barlin

The Victorians in the 19th century destroyed the mansions and rebuilt the area to house the growing population of London.  In the 20th century, the area was taken over by immigrants and the wealthy moved out.  In the 21st century, the hipsters have moved in and the area is trendy again.

Marketing Lesson #3:  Everything is cyclical.

African Style in Hackney

The exhibit has a tenuous connection between the history of Hackney and the African immigrants who live there now.

There has been a documented African presence in Hackney since the 1630’s thanks to church records which show the burial of an African man.  Now, of course, parts of the area has a sizeable African population.  African textiles and outfits are regularly sold in local stores.

The exhibit goes into minimal detail on the different types of African fabric and fashions worn in the area.  My favourite exhibit showed the snakeskin shoes made by the owner’s mother in the 1970’s.  On a visit to see family in Ghana the mother had gotten these accessories made for wearing in fashionable in London. Check out those platforms and belt!

African Style in Hackney

Visiting The African Threads Exhibit

The African Threads: Hackney Style exhibit is on at the Hackney Museum until the end of January 2016.  It’s a small exhibit packed into an even smaller space. My favourite part, the part about the current state of African style in Hackney, felt hastily thrown together.

Considering Hackney says that 11% of its residents are Africans and another 12% identify as having African or Afro-Caribbean heritage, surely the museum could have spared a bit more room for this exhibit.


This post is linked up with City Tripping.


Wander Mum