Are African fabrics really African? There is a long historical background that starts in Indonesia and ends in… Africa. In this blog we give you a brief historical insight, discuss the current threats and give our point of view on the so called ‘African fabrics’.
A Historical Insight
The History of wax prints can be traced back to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) as Batik. Batik is an art form that uses a tool, called a canting, that holds small amounts of hot liquid and makes intricate designs on fabrics. Batik can be traced as far back as 4th century Egypt and some say the technique was already used about 2000 years ago in the Middle East and Asia. In Indonesia the technique made its biggest impact in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Due to its popularity with missionaries and West African Soldiers, who served in the Dutch West Indies army between 1810 and 1862, the Dutch and English saw an opportunity for mass production of these fabrics. They created a new machinery to automate the dyeing process; the original batik process is very labor-intensive and there by discouraged mass production. These batik-inspired wax fabrics had a ‘crackle’ effect from dye bleed and found more market in the African continent; as a result the Europeans adapted their colors and patterns to suit the preferences of this new market.
The Waxing Process
African prints originally known as ‘Dutch wax’ are made through the resist dyeing method. The resist dyeing method is a term used for a number of traditional methods that has to do with creating patterns on textiles. The resist dyeing process creates patterns on fabrics by using a resist to prevent the dye from reaching all round the cloth. Wax is used as the resist for the ‘Dutch wax’ and this is how it got the name.
When creating a Dutch wax, the fabrics are soaked in hot water and then washed. The already selected patterns are then drawn on the fabric, using hot wax (made from beeswax) and a paint brush or a canting, depending on how intricate the designs are. At the end of this process the wax is allowed to harden.
After the waxing process the fabrics are then soaked in a tub containing the intended dye colors. When using multiple colors the wax is reapplied to preserve the patterns after each color. When mass producing, the fabric is tied, stitched or clamped, using clothe pegs or wooden blocks to shield areas of the fabric.
The last part of the process is the drying of the fabric. For the ironing of the fabrics paper towels are used to absorb the steam, whilst the heat sets the dye.
Owning ‘African Prints’
Even though ‘African prints’ originated from Europe, they have become a mode of recognition and communication in the Sub-Saharan African continent. The clothes are worn by paupers and royals alike and the industry has created jobs for millions of people within and outside the continent. There are brands such as Woodin, GTP & ATL that produce wax prints in Ghana. The patterns they use to dye the fabrics are colorful and contain of symbols and signs that are symbolic to the African people.
Prints made in Ghana are made to represent the Ghanaian people, promoting customs, traditions and symbols that are particular to the Ghanaian people.
Threats of African wax
These days the Ghanaian markets are full of ‘fake’ Chinese fabrics. The Chinese fabrics are much cheaper, 2-3 times cheaper than African printed fabrics, than fabrics printed in Ghana and of a decent quality for the price. We call them ‘fake fabrics’ because all the designs of the fabrics are copied from ‘original’ African prints. If a new print is introduced by an African fabric brand and it’s selling well you can be sure the Chinese brands will bring out the same design for a very cheap price less than a year later. This design stealing has caused a dramatic decrease of employment in the African fabric production industry.
Our point of view
Our vision has always been to create more employment in the area’s that we are working in. Therefore we only work with African printed fabrics and guarantee this by buying fabrics straight from accredited wholesalers of brands like GTP, Woodin & ATL. Chinese fabrics are in terms of profit rates interesting, because customers won’t really see the difference, but is killing the once flourishing African fabric industry in a very serious pace. The Ghanaian government is saying they are taking actions against those ‘fake’ fabrics, but real results aren’t seen. Therefore we really encourage everyone to buy African printed fabrics. Awareness is the first step, so please spread the word!
Do you have any idea’s about this subject? We would be happy if you share your vision with us and let’s discuss about this issue!
Thank you all!
X Jane Frances