CAPULANA: The Versatile Textile From Mozambique

It’s known as the Kanga in Tanzania and Kenya, Pagne in Senegal and Congo, Lappa in Nigeria, and the Leso in Mombasa. But in Mozambique, it’s referred to as Capulana. Considered a traditional fabric, the Capulana is a vibrant cotton cloth with dynamic prints and a multitasking core. Its ability to fulfil multiple roles in everyday life is a major part of its charm. For instance, it’s often used as a shawl against the cold and a protective cover from the sun. Mozambican mothers use it as a sling (which is called “neneca“) to carry their babies on their backs. Women working in the country side wrap it around their skirts as a dust barrier. But it’s popular with local tailors who fashion it into shoes, cushion covers, bags, clothes, and interior décor items.

[Image: Taibo Bacar]

Brief History on the Capulana

The trade between Mozambique’s coastal people and Portuguese traders brought the Capulana to the country between the 9th and 10th century. Northern Mozambique is considered the cynosure of the Capulana. According to the book ‘Capulanas & Lenços’, published by Missanga, the women from the north are credited for their creativity when fashioning the Capulana. ‘Women here wear several Capulanas, one over another, and sheets or other Capulanas on the head, artistically prepared as a headdress, in perfectly combined colours and patterns’.

[Image: Chibaia Clothing Co.]

[Image: Chibaia Clothing Co.]


Starting from the coast, the cloth gradually made its way inland. Originally, only the people in power had the right to own and use the fabric. With time, all walks of life were permitted to use it. Capulana found its place in daily life, as well as ceremonies. According to authors – Signe Arnfred and Maria Paula Meneses – in their book ‘Mozambique on the Move’, the cloth was traditionally used as ‘identity markers, symbols of love, means of communication and archives of history and memories.’ The Capulana is intimately linked with Mozambican women, young and old. So much so, it’s considered a symbol of belonging in the country.

[Image: Iris Santos]

[Image: Iris Santos]


With this in mind, there was a distinction between the day-to-day Capulana and the ones reserved for ceremonies. After all, the choice in Capulana combined in the way it was worn, told a story. For example, the combination could reveal whether the woman was married, widowed, or single.

[Image: AFI]

[Image: Xipixi]


Then there are the special occasion Capulanas that are considered a woman’s symbol of wealth. Often gifts from the men in her life, during courtship, marriage or a sign of appreciation from her son or son-in-law, these are well-kept treasures. These were then passed down from mother to daughter or grandmother to granddaughter. In addition, there were Capulanas in their prized collections that were linked to historical and social events.

[Image: MMO Playback]


Though it’s influenced by Swahili culture, this textile is a synthesis of local culture and foreign elements. The print of the Capulana draws inspiration from the Indonesian sarong and the Indian sari. They then added elements such as the strip around the edge and larger motifs in the middle of the cloth.  The design evolution of the Capulana patterns can be attributed to co-creation. According to ‘Design activism beautiful strangeness for a Sustainable World’ by A. Fuad-Luke, the participation of the population with naming and design development improves the chances of a more effective design outcome.

Capulana doesn’t feature a written phrase or proverb like the Kanga.

While it has some similarities with the Kanga, it has some elements that distinguish it from the rest. For instance, the Capulana doesn’t feature a written phrase or proverb like the Kanga. Furthermore, its creative liberties doesn’t include portraits of leaders in the community.

[Image: Stella Jean]

[Image: Stella Jean]


Capulana Today

Fashion wise, it is a textile that has been used by international and local designers. Designers that have worked with the fabric include Wacy Zacarias with her Woogui brand and Karingana Wa Karingana, Stella Jean, Xipixi, Iris Santos and Taibo Bacar. If you’re looking to buy one in Maputo, you want to opt for the cotton variants. They may be more expensive but they are considered the best quality. The only thing standard is the dimensions (2 meters by one) of the Capulanas. For tips on where to shop, you can find some suggestions here.

Capulana Chairs from Mozambique [Image: Capudeira]

Like many of the textiles featured so far, some edits have been made to make it more appealing to the mass market. For starters, while it was traditionally worn and used by women, men and children freely use it as well. Additionally, it can’t be ignored that the Capulana has slowly been losing its former governing interpretation. The modern versions have been somewhat domesticated by western fashion trends. As designers continue to incorporate it in their design, will they find a way to bridge the gap between modern expression and cultural history?

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