Shema/ Ethiopian Cotton

Teleica Kirkland

Shema is Ethiopian cotton and the production of it is Ethiopia’s oldest industry. Traditionally the cotton was hand spun and woven on handlooms. Even though there is a significant part of the Ethiopian cotton industry that is now industrialised there are still a large number of rational hand spinners and weavers.

Handpicked cotton is separated and dyed to the desired colour and then woven to create particular pieces. Although there are now quite a few designs which are machine manufactured, many of the designs on the finished garments are embroidered by hand and these still remain very popular.

Shema is very popular in Ethiopia and is worn by almost everybody. It is often worn in the form of full body wraps, dresses, shawls or sashes. The density of the cloth depends on the weave and often times the Shema is produced with a light weave used in many layers in blankets (known as Gabi) or clothing.

Having many layers of lightly woven cotton in a particular garment or item has the effect of trapping air between the layers keeping the wearer warm whilst still appearing light and unencumbered.

The cotton is also used to create a Natella which is a lightly woven shawl that often has a brightly coloured double threaded heavily woven border at each end. The Natella is often worn with the full traditional Ethiopian Kemis dress as a sash belt or shawl but is sometimes worn with western style clothing as well.

As the Ethiopian cotton industry is quite large there are many Ethiopian designers and design companies who use this product in their fashions. Companies like Menby Designs and Muya Ethiopia and designers such as Mekdes Tefera Taye and Fikirte Addis make traditionally inspired modern clothing and house wares from Ethiopian cotton.