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African Lace: an industrial fabric connecting Austria and Nigeria

This was not only the market launch of a completely new product but also the birth of an entirely new product category. Have you ever wondered where the plastic packaging for your breakfast eggs comes from? The company Ovotherm is the world's largest supplier of transparent egg packaging.

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Meet 46 Austrian companies. Non-experts easily confound certain qualities of industrial embroideries, specifically guipure chemical lace or eyelet embroidery, with real laces because they have a very similar appearance.

The use of the term lace results from this confusion and its now a firmly established market denomination for all kinds of industrial embroideries, also of qualities that have no resemblance with real laces.

View of exhibition at Lagos National Museum. A local shortage of embroiderers soon led to the training of peasant women from the Bregenzerwald area in neighbouring Austria, who worked part-time from home. The Lake Constance Region already had a long history of flax spinning and linen weaving going back to medieval times. The first embroidery factory in Lustenau on the Austrian border with Switzerland was founded in and by the turn of the century the embroidery industry had become the region's major employer and foreign exchange earner.

Along with Switzerland and Saxony, Vorarlberg became one of Europe's three foremost centres of the embroidery industry. Increasing industrialisation did little to alter the basic structure of the embroidery industry. Even today, a significant part of production is out-sourced to small family enterprises known as "wage embroiderers" operating one or two embroidery machines and under contract to larger embroidery companies.

Close-up of a fabric with allover embroidery emerging from on old-fashioned embroidery machine still in use. A red spot marks faults, which are then corrected on the hand embroidery machine. In the early 20th century, it was fashionable to wear white dresses made entirely of embroidered fabric; in the period from to blouses were often decorated with embroidery.

Another standard product until were embroidered handkerchiefs. The target countries were mainly in Europe, with Great Britain and Germany the biggest buyers. Outside Europe, textiles were supplied to Egypt and Turkey. India purchased primarily dress fabrics embroidered with artificial silk, while demand in the North African market was for colourful fringed shawls and richly embroidered dress fabrics; embroidered curtains were sold to the Netherlands, and handkerchiefs, decorative cloths, tulle, and guipure lace to Great Britain Fitz Furthermore, starting in cotton underwear was no longer decorated with embroidery.

However, one of the chief reasons for the decline was the fact that from the First World War on, unembroidered artificial silk became fashionable for underwear, and the use of knitted fabrics in general became widespread. Another factor in the crisis was that many countries increased the import taxes levied on embroideries that were considered luxury goods, and therefore prices became problematically high.

In the USA, for example, in customs duty rose from between 45 and 60 per cent to between 75 and 90 per cent, and in Japan in from 40 per cent to per cent. In addition, in the interim an embroidery industry had established itself in the countries that had originally been major distribution areas.

The biggest competition for Lustenau embroiderers at that time came from Switzerland, where embroidery had long been the most important export, ahead of watches, machinery, and silk. In the s, the embroiderers went to great lengths to regain their markets and above all to identify new ones.

Prior to that, probably from the s on, embroideries were used by women in Nigeria for white blouses that they wore with wraparound skirts of locally woven fabrics. These textiles were imported by British, German, Dutch, Lebanese, or Indian trading houses in coastal cities and sold through retailers across the country.

Textiles from Vorarlberg probably already figured among their assortment, as large quantities were sold to export companies in Great Britain and the Netherlands. According to Heinz Hundertpfund, 5 certain Austrian textile companies were already supplying Nigeria directly before the s. The largest were the Getzner textile factory in Bludenz manufacturer of cotton damask textiles , the F. To this day, Getzner is the biggest producer of fine damask textiles for West Africa; their main markets are Mauritania, Mali, and Senegal, but they also supply large quantities of fabrics to the Islamic North of Nigeria.

Nigerian independence in not only favoured the establishment of a wealthy middle class, but also spawned other developments that facilitated international business contacts. Nigerian merchants increasingly took the initiative to circumvent the commercial agencies established during the colonial era from which they had until then bought their goods, preferring to establish direct contact with producers in Europe with a view to earning greater profits themselves.

Trade delegate Heinz Hundertpfund had observed the popularity of white lace for blouses in Nigeria and had alerted embroiderers in his home region to this trend. Furthermore, the introduction by Lufthansa and Swiss Air of direct flights to Lagos in the early s simplified travel. Hundertpfund remembers Josef Fenkart from Hohenems, whom he met in person in Lagos in , as the first embroiderer from Vorarlberg.

Others believe that it was Kurt Nachbauer from the Lustima company who blazed the trail in Nigeria Murorunkwere Lustima did not themselves produce but rather sold goods from various Vorarlberg factories, who made lace on commission for them.

As some Nigerian merchant dynasties remember it, the name Lustima became known as one of the first Austrian companies to establish direct trade contacts in Lagos. For example, Debo Adekoya, who is considered the first large-scale Nigerian importer of Austrian embroideries, purchased goods from Lustima in the early s and had travelled to Lustenau. He took over the company Crumpsall Enterprises on Lagos Island from his father, who had imported shoes from Manchester for the elite of Lagos.

Adekoya himself traded in textiles and brought back samples of industrial embroideries from a trade fair in Great Britain after noticing the product there. With this important step, they succeeded in eliminating intermediaries and rapidly boosting direct trade.

However, this direct contact also involved a larger risk for the Vorarlberg exporters, because until then European producers had delivered exclusively to local trading houses who guaranteed payment. Direct contact offered the advantage of gaining decisive insight into the interests, quality expectations, and colour preferences of the Nigerian customers; furthermore it generated awareness of the importance of adhering to delivery deadlines, as the textiles were normally ordered for specific festive occasions and were no longer needed if the agreed delivery date was not met.

These personal business contacts also resulted in mutual trust and counter-visits of the Nigerian business associates to Austria. Both in Lagos and in Lustenau, news had spread about supply and demand, and both sides actively sought direct contacts. An increasing number of Lustenau companies sent their sales representatives to Lagos, and buyers in Nigeria tried to locate production facilities themselves.

The dynamics of this process were comparable on both sides. At first it was wholesalers in Nigeria and large-scale producers in Austria who dominated the transnational business, but in the heyday of the trade, these groups gradually expanded on both sides. The cousin of later president Olusegun Obasanjo, she was a wealthy trader on Kosoko Street on Lagos Island and owner of Ebun Oluwa Stores, 10 and was quickly identified by the Lustenau embroiderers as the perfect, financially strong business associate.

She vigorously defended her position as market leader against the competition. In the mids he had noticed that an importer in Lagos who stocked goods from Lustima was very successful. Shitu and his brother Suleiman were already well established in the textile business, with their main store in the so-called Gutter on Lagos Island. They imported stiff brocades, called damask in Nigeria, primarily from Germany, but also Guinea brocade i.

The Italian fabrics were of lower quality than the Austrian, for which a better base material was used. In St Gallen at the company Filtex, which was not yet involved in the trade with Africa, he could not find suitable merchandise; but thereafter he was successful in Lustenau. He started importing unicolour Austrian embroideries and the following year purchased multicoloured versions that were produced following his suggestion.

Prince Shitu gradually expanded his business contacts in Lustenau and its environs and purchased goods from various companies, visiting them regularly and developing collections together with them. She did this through London, where she also unknowingly purchased Austrian goods and took them to Nigeria. The textiles sold extremely well, and when she detected the country of origin on a label, she was told about the town of Lustenau.

She travelled there in , obtaining a visa in London and flying from there to Vienna. Once there, she realized that Lustenau was located at the other end of the country. However, her entry into the Lustenau production network was not entirely without friction, as established importers were keen to maintain their leading position in the market and above all protect the exclusivity of their products. After establishing contact with Lustenau, Owolana ran into problems with her competitor Obebe, who even intervened with the Austrian authorities in Lagos, alleging she had copied colours.

Competition between Lustenau embroiderers was high, and both sides were and are careful to keep trade secrets even from their colleagues in order to keep their position in the market. Experienced employees normally remained in the field throughout their career and could apply their knowledge working for different companies.

Some of the trailblazers who had travelled to Nigeria early on are still in the business; others have turned to new fields of activity.

His earliest contact with the local textile trade was through the Belgian trading company Comptoir Commercial, which brought him his first big orders. His journey took him all the way across Africa: To do that, he first had to go to Johannesburg, reaching Accra in Ghana and from there Lagos; from there he was finally taken to Ibadan by the Belgian import firm that secured him his first local customers. However, he soon established direct contacts himself.

His biggest customer, with whom he maintained close contact, was Mrs Obebe. Her key business associates from Lustenau were present when she was invested with the title Iyaloja in Abeokuta at the beginning of Oswald Brunner visited Nigeria for the last time in and soon after that he went into a different business. In the era of the greatest demand in the late s, he sometimes flew to Lagos twice a week. He once took fifty-six suitcases of Austrian lace with him on the plane to Kano so that he could deliver the goods made for a big order from his major customer Olanrewajo on time.

He was bound for Accra in Ghana, where he wanted to show embroidered borders that were imported from Lustenau by Indian trading houses. On the way to Accra, the plane stopped over in Lagos, where he took the opportunity to meet the trade delegate Hundertpfund. He initially offered borders in Lagos too, but he noticed embroideries on sale at the Kingsway — a British trading house — that probably originated from Switzerland.

He made contacts in the textile market on Lagos Island, which initially proved difficult because coordinating payment and order placement was problematic with the small retailers, who often could not read or write. It was only over time that he was able to build up connections with wholesalers. From on, the time of the trade boom, he was employed by another company — Platter.

He has now worked for more than 20 years for Riedesser, but has not travelled to Nigeria himself since Initially he usually stayed in Nigeria for an average of a week, during which time he spent two days in Ibadan visiting major customers on Lebanon Street.

When he returned to Austria, he managed his own company in Lustenau, which in-between he ran as a wage embroiderer carrying out commission orders. They did this together with Nigerian partners, who were typically also wholesale importers. A lack of political will to support the industry was a further factor. In all there existed twenty embroidery factories in Nigeria with a total of machines, located in Lagos and the Ijebu region.

The son of a family in the embroidery business, he studied economics in Switzerland and travelled to Nigeria for the first time in The family business, which supplies the major fashion houses in Europe, had specialized in embroidered organza, which they introduced to the Nigerian market in Here again, Chief Obebe was the first importer.

General Manager Werner Berlinger remembers his first major order for expensive, hand-cut organza products studded with Swarovski crystals: On the Nigerian side, there were a limited number of major importers, for whom certain patterns had to be embroidered exclusively.

Petty traders purchased their goods from these companies and not directly from the Austrians. Between and , however, the market structure changed: During this period, when lace production was also experiencing a heyday, more and more small producers in Lustenau and the surrounding area entered the business.

This trend was linked to political events in Nigeria and fuelled by a series of government decrees aimed at increasing Nigerian participation in the national industry; one measure taken to this end was the imposition of import restrictions.

With this focus on the oil business, from which the state reaped huge revenues, local industry and agriculture were neglected, and the increase in imports was disproportionately large Falola and Heaton The military government under General Yakubu Gowon —75 issued the first decree to reduce the preponderance of foreign interests in the Nigerian economy.

The embroidery companies continued to deliver despite the ban; the profit margin was so high that eventual impounding of goods was not a problem as the business could easily absorb occasional losses.

Only after the reinforcement of controls with the complete ban on imports did the producers ship to the neighbouring Republic of Benin, shifting the risk to importers.

However, other distribution channels were soon found. Whereas some reports commented ironically on the reactions in Austrian politics others sought to provide a critical examination of the facts; another reported at length on the events, but in flippant language, with an illustration showing a stereotypical and denigrating caricature of the Nigerian customers.

Both the Vorarlberg producers and Nigerians as the purchasers are portrayed here as actors in a curious, exotic comedy rather than as conflicting parties in the midst of a serious economic crisis in international relations. First and foremost the ban affected Austrian producers, who at the time dominated this market. The situation escalated in summer when, shortly after the imposition of the complete ban on imports, the two Austrians Karl Hagspiel and Heinz Mayer were arrested in Nigeria on suspicion of smuggling foreign currency.

At the same time, efforts were made to obtain the release of the two Austrians imprisoned in Nigeria. The fact that he knew General Obasanjo in person — whose former girlfriend Sofowora was herself a major importer and dealer in embroideries — did not benefit him in the least. Armed smugglers were threatened with the death penalty, smugglers caught in the act could reckon on 5 years in prison, and those found in possession of smuggled goods could be imprisoned for a year unless they proved that the goods had entered the country legally.

Initially lace confiscated at the airport could be purchased at low prices and the revenue went to the state, but soon it was considered more appropriate to burn the smuggled goods publicly.

New factories pledged to satisfy the increasing demand for domestic products. For example, Alhaji Garba Inuwa founded the Magwan Textile Company in Kano in , with Lothar Fenkart from Vorarlberg holding a 40 per cent share; they announced plans to produce 2, metres of light embroidery fabrics a day, and even though nearly reaching Austrian quality, it would be priced well below imported lace.

This was widely discussed in the newspapers: It is, however, another matter for every individual to feel a genuine sense of commitment to keeping these laws.

For the evils that we fight are far beyond the laces, the naira spraying parties and the gold trinket contests. These excesses themselves reflect the downward trend in the lives of people who have engaged in trading in their self-respect and mental stability for cheap gaudy and perishable articles.

Spraying developed as a phenomenon of modern Nigerian society and became common, for example, at weddings or wherever Juju music was played: Spraying therefore also serves as self-dramatization Bender The debate regarding excess at that time centred on luxurious embroideries called Wonyosi , characterized by hand-cut perforations, applications, and Swarovski crystals attached to the fabric.

Wonyosi became a symbol and epitome of the wastefulness of a segment of the society that had become affluent as a result of the oil boom. A class that Wole Soyinka sharply condemned in his socio-critical Opera Wonyosi. Politicians and other people in the public eye increasingly appeared in hand-woven textiles. Furthermore, the late s saw a wave of innovations in the production of aso oke textiles, which were now available in a wide variety of colours and with the introduction of imported lurex yarn offered an attractive, modern alternative to the embroideries.

This so-called shain-shain variant became a huge success, and aso oke textiles with decorative openwork eleya were in high demand. The process was later intensified by economic adversity, as purchasing power in Nigeria declined, but was equally advanced by patriotic ideals: Southwestern Nigeria, late s.

Handwoven narrow-strip cloth in cotton and lurex yarn. L cm, kembe three-quarter length pants: She was the first Nigerian to open a boutique with her own collection in the s, developing a characteristic Nigerian style in her reinterpretation of international fashion trends using locally produced fabrics. A comparable approach defines the vibrant fashion scene in Nigeria to this day.

Shade-Fahm, who is now a celebrity remains a vehement critic of the use of expensive imported lace, and fuelled by her national pride, she exclusively uses locally produced textiles in her fashion lines.

In the late s, an aso oke style evolved evoking the aesthetics of industrial embroideries, copying them with machine chain stitch motifs on hand-woven narrow strips. They asserted themselves as an essential component of neo-traditional dress in Southern Nigeria and as a decisive element of its economy of prestige.

Deliveries were made to the Republic of Benin, but the fabric still found its way from there to Nigeria. During the heyday, 1, embroidery machines in Vorarlberg worked throughout, with some commissions outsourced abroad in order to satisfy the enormous demand. For asylum seekers refugees in a pending asylum procedure , volunteering is one option to work in companies and NGOs. The following conditions need to be met:.

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