Book review: Patterns in Circulation

So I bought Nina Sylvanus’s Patterns in Circulation: Cloth, Gender, and Materiality in West Africa because I’m a quilter and am interested in fabric. I know very little about West Africa and its position in global circuits of trade, or about the wax cloth representative of this region. But man, was this book interesting. It was so well put-together in terms of separate topics in separate chapters that all tie in to a main theme, and in attending to both global capital and local culture, nationalism and livelihoods, symbolic meaning and (literally) materiality, individual women’s stories and anthropological theory. I would definitely recommend it if you’re interested in gender and development, post-colonial Africa, and/or cultural economic geography.

Part of why this book is so rich is that it’s based on over thirty months of fieldwork spread out over a decade. That’s what enables Sylvanus to get at the multiple meanings of pagne, the wax-dyed cloth that is so important economically, socially, and culturally in Togo and other parts of West Africa. On the one hand, she’s taking a commodity and tracing it through its colonial origins in the Dutch East Indies, its postcolonial role in connecting female traders to Togo’s dictator, and the post-postcolonial neoliberal regime that creates new entrepreneurial subjects focused on making individual connections to Chinese factories. In the process, Sylvanus argues that West Africa has been “global” for centuries, and not only as a site of resource extraction: Dutch clothmakers had to learn to pay attention to the styles and preferences of African consumers in order to produce a successful product.

Si tu sors, je sors (if you go out, I go out), is worn to indicate to your spouse that you know he’s been seeing someone on the side, and so now you have license to do the same.

At the same time, this book is an anthropological study of the different patterns of pagne in terms of how the designs communicate meaning to others (see above). There’s also the matter of how women wear this cloth to public events in deliberately performative ways to evoke status, ambition, and identity. The pattern, how the clothing is shaped, and how it’s accessorized are all key. More recently, knockoff versions of traditional clothing create a whole new level of complexity, as bystanders evaluate not just the pattern, but how high quality an imitation it is. It’s not just a matter of sight: it’s also how the cloth feels on the skin and drapes on the body, something that has to be personally experienced.

This design I found on Pinterest is a good example of the skilled tailoring required to use the pattern of the pagne in just the right way, centering the starburst design so that it also expands into the double-ruffled shoulders.

The last chapter talks about China-in-Africa, contrasting the literature on neo-colonialism and paternalistic Western concerns about infrastructure investment with a ground-up view as to how Togolese women are themselves drawing Chinese investment into Africa. In particular, they are making regular journeys to Guangzhou and Yiwu to supervise their own textile production, as structural adjustment and currency devaluation have made Dutch fabrics too expensive, and WTO agreements have decimated African textile production. At the same time, the Togolese government is under pressure to develop the center of Lomé in a fashion more conducive to international investment than the traditional cloth market that has been a fundamental part of the country’s identity, threatening the livelihood of these women on another front.

Overall, Sylvanus does an excellent job of bringing together multiple scales and registers of analysis. I learned a lot about cloth as an aspect of West Africa that doesn’t get much attention in the literature–perhaps because it is economically and culturally dominated by women, and I would definitely recommend it.