Visual Symbols of Identity

Federation Sahalandy

On the island nation of Madagascar, silk weaving plays a vital role. Located 300 miles off the coast of Africa, this country has a reputation for its spectacular tradition of hand-woven cloths. Far from mere trade commodities, these textiles are seen a fundamental part of Malagasy social and cultural identity. There is a famous proverb that translates, “While one silk thread is strong, many woven together are stronger.” Weaving and silk production in Madagascar is a communal effort, uniting ethnic groups and building relationships.
In 2006, Federation Sahalandy was formed, representing the Merina and Betsileo people. Their mission is to empower women and improve lives through the production of scarves made from silkworm cocoons. This organization works with seven weaving cooperatives that represent 80 weavers in the area of Sandrandahy. They specialize in naturally dyed, hand-woven, native silk and cotton products. Members of Sahalandy process wild silk from cocoons that are harvested from native tapia trees, a species found unique to Madagascar. The result is a vibrant and dynamic fusion that comes alive through the collaborative efforts between these ethnicities.
Sahalandy creates silks that are beautiful and complex, including the Lamba Landys (silk cloth) that is considered to be the finest example of traditional Malagasy artisanal work. This particular textile serves a variety of purposes from functional to ceremonial. This special cloth is used as an offering to a bride, gifted to a foreign leader, worn as a garment, or used simply to communicate power, authority, respect, friendship, and love. The pieces vary from region to region, and are distinguishable in their pattern, material, color, and ritual significance. Typically, they are accented with one or more stripes and edged with geometric or floral patterns. A Malagasy proverb speaks of the lamba, “This is the lamba. When one is angry it is wrapped around the waist to free one’s hands to fight, when one sleeps it serves as a blanket, when one goes out it is worn as clothing, when one dies it becomes a shroud.”
Although lambas are the primary element of clothing for the living, the burial shroud is considered the most significant silk as it is used to wrap and bury the deceased. Peace Corps volunteer Natalie Mundy says, “These two articles look different, but are made of different materials, and have different levels of implied power and strength. Shrouds provide the ancestors with eternal comfort and protection. They provide a barrier against potential contamination, ensuring that they remain distinct and identifiable, and protect them from the cold. By enshrouding their ancestors, the living give them warmth, give them respect and honor by ensuring they are not dressed in rags, and bestow upon them the ultimate visual symbol of Betsileo tradition and identity.”
Malagasy weaving is typically viewed as a female occupation and is a social activity that brings together friends and family. Natalie says, “The relationship between women and weaving starts at birth when the newborn child is first introduced to the community. During these celebrations, family members carry objects symbolic of the baby’s gender: hunting objects for a boy, and weaving tools for a girl. Girls traditionally learn the entire weaving process – from gathering, preparing, and washing silk cocoons, to spinning, weaving, and finally sewing together the panels – from elder family relatives.”
These textiles are seen as a basic part of Malagasy civilization, they are visual symbols of identity and hold deep metaphors of life. They tell stories of one's ancestors and shine light on the country’s most revered and longstanding craft traditions.
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