#71 “African Fabrics”: The History of Dutch Wax Prints–Guest Blog by Eccentric Yoruba

Vlisco model. Click for source.

“A picture of a pipe isn’t necessarily a pipe, an image of “African fabric” isn’t necessarily authentically [and wholly] African”.

These above words are quoted by Yinka Shonibare, a Nigerian-British contemporary artist known for his amazing artwork using African print fabrics in his scrutiny of colonialism and post-colonialism. What is commonly known as “African fabric” goes by a multitude of names: Dutch wax print, Real English Wax, Veritable Java Print, Guaranteed Dutch Java, Veritable Dutch Hollandais. I grew up calling them ankara and although they’ve always been a huge symbol of my Nigerian and African identity, I had no idea of the complex and culturally diverse history behind the very familiar fabrics until I discovered Yinka Shonibare and his art.

I know I personally felt shocked upon learning that the “African” fabrics I grew up loving and admiring were not really “African” in their origins (or is it?). This put things in perspective, however, as it suddenly made sense that my mother’s friends regularly travelled to European countries, including Switzerland and England, to purchase these fabrics and expensive laces to sell them again in Nigeria. In an attempt to join this lucrative business, my mother once dragged me with her to a fabric store while on holiday in London. I was not 13 years old then and I recall being surprised to find such familiar fabrics on sale outside Nigeria. Regardless, I never imagined that the history of this African fabric, henceforth referred to as Dutch wax print, spanned over centuries, across three continents and bridging various power structures.

Vlisco model. Click for source.

European imitation and industrialisation of Indonesian batik techniques

The development of the African print fabric has been referred to as the “result of a long historical process of imitation and mimicry”. How exactly Dutch wax prints became popular in West Africa is debated. What is known for certain is that Dutch wax prints started out as cheap mass-produced imitations of Indonesian batik locally produced in Java. Colonial powers, particularly the Dutch and the English, played heavy roles in industrialising the batik production techniques and popularising the resulting textiles in foreign markets.

Example of Javanese batik print. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Javanese batik are made by hand-drawing motifs on cotton cloth and involved the use of wax and resist-dye. After being colonised by the Dutch, Javanese batik was introduced to Holland and consequently to other parts of Europe but did not gain popularity. In the 19th century Dutch merchants saw that fabrics were mass produced in Europe using engraved roller print machines and dye-resistant resin to design motifs and produce a batik effect on cloth. This was done in an effort to develop foreign textiles markets for machine-produced batik imitations. The van Vlissingers, for example, were a merchant family who established their company in 1846 by bringing the mass production of batik dyed textiles to Europe, and established today’s Vlisco brand of cloth.

Views differ as to how Dutch wax prints entered the West African market. One view is that in the late 1800s, Dutch freighters on their way to Indonesia from Europe stocked with their machine-made batik textiles stopped at various African ports, and subsequently an African client base grew.

Another suggestion is that the Dutch wax fabrics did not do as well as expected in the Indonesian market due, in part because of economic restrictions imposed on the sale of forign textiles at the beginning of the 20th century to protect locally made batik textiles. It has also been suggested that the industrialised wax prints were regarded as much poorer in quality that the locally handmade batiks. In order to prevent a loss, the target market switched to West Africa.

There is also the theorized role played by West African indentured soldiers for the Dutch in Indonesia, also known as the Black Dutchmen. They served between 1810 and 1862 and many had taken Indonesian batik with them on their return home as gifts for their families. Thereafter, local interest in the fabrics grew, and the Dutch wax prints were the closest imitation available. The role played by Black Dutchmen is questionable, however, because while a large number of them married Javanese women and stayed on in Indonesia, those that returned to their countries of origin usually came back empty-handed due to shortcomings and delays in salary payments from the Dutch.

Lest it seem that the introduction of Dutch wax prints into the West African market happened out of the blue, West Africa had always been a textile market, since fabrics have been important aspects of African social life for a very long time. As early as the 16th century, the English, Dutch and French were selling batiks and other types of textiles manufactured in Asia, such as the “guinea cloth” and Indian produced cottons from Pondicherry, now Puducherry, to West African markets. Thus consumers were quite accustomed to globally-produced fabrics. The introduction of Dutch batik-inspired wax prints lead to the peak of foreign-manufactured fabrics in West African markets in the 19th century.

Regardless of how Dutch wax prints precisely entered West Africa, one can conclude that they were originally intended for the Indonesian market but found a more enthusiastic market in the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) where they became symbols of high quality and fashion. From the Gold Coast, these fabrics spread into other West and Central African markets.

The acceptance and growth of Dutch wax prints by West Africans

In the 19th century West Africans embraced these Dutch wax prints, using and assimilating them into societies as a part of culture and self-expression. The English were manufacturing and selling wax print textiles as well, but the Dutch brands were more popular. It has been suggested that the Dutch were viewed as the “well-meaning” traders with West Africa, since a lot of West African nations were under English or French colonial rule.

Dutch wax prints carried, and still carry, an enormous amount of prestige and this was mostly likely due to their uniqueness as part of an European industry producing for export markets solely in West Africa.

Vlisco model with handbag. Click for source.

Dutch manufacturers of these fabrics thereafter made some changes to designs and motifs in order to cater to the tastes of their new African customers. As can be expecting making prints using motifs designed specifically for the African market took more time and effort. Earlier design motifs used plants and animals believed to be universal to all cultures. From the middle of the 20th century, though, more effort was made in making design motifs more authentic by using indigenous African textiles to create similar motifs. In the 1920s prints began to feature portraits of local community leaders and chiefs in their designs that people could buy in to celebrate their leaders. This tradition continued with portraits of African heads of states and prominent politicians used as design motifs starting in the 1950s.

Francois Tombalbaye (1918-75), President of Chad from 1960 to 1975, with FrenchPresident Georges Pompidou. Cloth dates from 1972. Click for source.

Designs and motifs that became extremely popular and successful were given catchy names, and they had proverbs and slogans attached to them by West Africans traders in their respective communities, even though these appellations had nothing in common with the designs on the fabrics. Due to this integration of Dutch wax prints, they are said to be “authentically African” even though they were produced and designed in Europe, presumably by Europeans with little or no African input in terms of designs and motifs at the production stages.

Up until the 1960s, most wax prints sold in West Africa were being produced in Europe. Post-colonially, things changed. Currently, Ghana is home to several fine and high quality wax print manufacturers including Woodin, a subsidiary of Holland’s Vlisco and ATL which is a subsidiary of Manchester-based ABC textiles. Notice that even though these textiles are now manufactured on the continent, the companies that manufacture them are largely not owned by Africans.

Da Viva model. Click for source.

Yet West Africa became the exclusive markets for Dutch prints and Dutch brands have dominated the West African market since the end of the 19th century where they held importance as status symbols. Today, wax prints carrying European brand names are the most expensive in the West African fabric market. The Dutch brand Vlisco is a symbol of class on par with any popular Western brands like Rolex or Louis Vuitton. A wealthy person cannot be seen wearing just any wax print brand, it has to be Vlisco.

The Chinese entrance into the wax print market

It hasn’t been too long since Dutch wax prints started being produced on the African continent but now the African textile industry is facing competition from China. The entrance of Chinese manufactured print textiles brings another complication into the mix, throwing a wrench in the established trade networks between West African and European cloth manufacturers.

How the wax prints produced in China came into West African markets is another long story which can summarised thus: some African traders travelled to regions in China such as Shandong to reproduce fabric samples cheaply, which were to be sold in their respective countries. Thus, African traders had a role to play in introducing Chinese manufacturers into the African textile market.

With Dutch wax prints being increasingly reproduced in China, wax prints carrying ‘made in Holland’ tag are at the high end of the market, with Chinese productions occupying the opposite end. However, this is changing rapidly as the quality of Chinese wax print copies is apparently improving. The manufacturer based in Manchester was recently bought by a Chinese company, leaving Vlisco as the only European-owned producer of wax prints.

The question of authenticity

Dutch wax prints are of foreign origin but are widely recognised as African fabrics. To bring back the earlier quote from Yinka Shonibare; “an image of ‘African fabric’ isn’t necessarily authentically [and wholly] African”. Or is it? Delving into the history of Dutch wax prints and their strong popularity in West Africa draws questions of authenticity and “Africanness”. Are these fabrics African because they are popular in Africa? How does the fact that they started out as imitations of Indonesian/Javanese batik designs and were brought into the West African market by colonial Europeans fit into all this?

Though they seem to be quite unpopular, there are some voiced concerns with regards to an exploitative relationship with the European fabric markets. This article for example argues that what we call African wax prints are Javanese in production techniques and are a product of Javanese, Indian, Chinese, Arab and European artistic traditions. It calls for a “regeneration of authentic African print designs”.

This is where the question of authenticity comes up. Are Dutch wax prints really based on a traditional African form? Can they be compared to indigenous African fabrics such as the Yoruba adire or the adinkra cloth of the Ashanti? Has the introduction of Dutch wax prints hurt the indigenous textile market, driving locally produced fabrics out of the market? Actually, I’m tempted to answer ‘yes’ to the latter because I have been told that the adire textiles I own are out of fashion. The last time I wore hand woven aso-oke was more than a decade ago. Aso-oke is still worn at weddings and special ceremonies but they are not extremely popular, not as Dutch wax prints. After all I only see billboards for Vlisco and Da Viva .

Girl wearing aso-oke. Click for source.

It is no secret that I love fabrics and textiles. I try to buy Dutch wax prints that were manufactured in Ghana. At the same time I purchase locally-made fabrics not caring whether or not they are in vogue.

Eccentric Yoruba is a really not that strange regardless of what her alias may suggest. She spends her days writing and blogging at Curiosity Killed The Eccentric Yoruba and Dreamwidth.



Filed under Essays, History

67 responses to “#71 “African Fabrics”: The History of Dutch Wax Prints–Guest Blog by Eccentric Yoruba

  1. Jen

    My mother and I are fabric addicts, and history nerds. Furthermore I’d just been thinking about adding some of the batiks, both African and Javanese, to my steampunk closet, so this is great info to have. Thanks for this piece.

  2. Pingback: “African Fabrics”: The History of Dutch Wax Prints « curiosity killed the eccentric yoruba

  3. I really enjoyed this piece, and it’s great to see more about fabrics/textiles from you. 🙂

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  5. Pingback: African Dutch Wax « The Street Idle

  6. Pingback: African Dutch Wax « The Overeducated

  7. Material mama

    This is such a great post. Thanks! I’ve been thinking about wax print a lot lately – it’s nice to find such good discussion of it. I think we (Africans) have to protect our industries and our culture. No one’s going to do that for us. I don’t care that wax print was originally from Indonesia. I just care that we’re STILL giving so much money to people in Europe and Asia for our ‘traditional’ wear, AND we don’t own significant parts of the production (or distribution) process. We’re being exploited (again!).

    • Los

      But if wax print – is that similar to Batik? – is from Indonesia, then how possibly can yo express that “we Africans have to protect OUR industries and our culture?” Sounds like you are borrowing a technique of fabric making from one nation and instead of simply making fabric, are trying also to highjack the style as being your own. That is so self absorbed and even wrong thinking – Enjoy the fabric and or making it but why do you find it necessary to claim ownership? Thats silly

      • Tian

        “Sounds like you are borrowing a technique of fabric making from one nation and instead of simply making fabric, are trying also to highjack the style as being your own. That is so self absorbed and even wrong thinking – Enjoy the fabric and or making it but why do you find it necessary to claim ownership? Thats silly”
        This statement is very condescending. I appreciate your point about borrowing the technique of fabric making but explain how this is ‘high jacking’ the style if the preferences and tastes of African women is what popularized particular patterns & colour usage on the continent? Any difference in the styles prevalent in Africa and Indonesia will be determined by the cultures of the respective peoples. Our styles are distinctive to us. In your comment you fail to show any understanding of the historical & global context of the statement “we Africans need to protect our industries and culture” and this ignorance is then compounded into something more suspicious and reminiscent of racism by inferring stupidity and immaturity. Who is the ‘you’ being referred to if not African people collectively? I suggest you compare and contrast traditional wear in Indonesia and Africa to educate yourself instead and learn something about colonialism and neo-colonialism in the economic underdevelopment of the continent.

  8. i Thinks this is a fantastic post and the fabrics and patterns are amazing

  9. Thanks for all the background information. I love the vibrant and trendy styles of Vlisco, however due to their history they always leave me with a bad taste in my mouth and I am wondering if it is really ‘OK’ to promote or buy products from them?

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  12. I’ve learnt quite a lot from this post. Thank your for sharing it.

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  14. Tayo

    Indepth right up

  15. lionel

    You can get cheap Dutch wax prints at Dalston Market London..just outside the entrance of the mall (PAK stores on the left) 2 for £10..not sure how many yards but the one i bought is quite a few yards…Let’s not keep secrets of good locations to get fabric at good prices Amen.

  16. sunny kedo

    i love your prints

  17. Adeoti Adeola

    your prints are quite flamboyant. i am thrilled with your collections. thanks for sharing them.

  18. Sukumar Devaguptapu

    Hi this is Sukumar from Bangkok, Thailand. Until 5 years back we used to print african prints and used to export to the African markets, where also, I lived and worked. I share a lot of fascination with this product. Can I put link your site in my personal website ? Thanks…

  19. Outstanding post, I conceive folks need to larn a whole lot from this weblog its really user friendly . 825297

  20. Paper rolls extremely fantastic read you know alot about this subject i see! 70267

  21. Neo

    This is the most imformative piece I read about the history of African print fabric. Thanx!!!!

  22. Jackie Thomas

    I need a dressmaker from thailand who can help me design with african fabric from thailand, i am coming to thailand soon and would like to meet a fashion designer to assist me.

  23. olu agarawu

    i want to be buying ankara from you

  24. Alma

    I love your article about fabric. I am a Sierra Leonean. Where do they manufacture the fabric known as “PRINT”? This is very popular, mainly used by the Creoles. Thanks

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  39. Memette

    I don’t think its un-African to culturally adopt textiles from other countries. As said, the prints have shaped themselves to the aesthetics of the people there, and I often find the images abstract and geometric. But if you want to take control of your textile industry, create your own stencils and paint designs onto the fabric. I think that the problem isn’t that Africa has adopted these prints, but it hasn’t gone beyond that. African ideas and designs haven’t been applied to other types of fabric like polycotton blends or silks– things that would make traditional caftans in certain African nations flowier and much more aesthetically appealing than they look with cotton.

  40. Pingback: Wax Prints « CAPTURED WITH MY SAMSUNG

  41. Pingback: Ghana + Holland + Indonesia + Jane and Finch: African Dutch Wax Fabrics | The Ethnic Aisle

  42. Pingback: Authenticity at Jane and Finch: African Dutch Wax Fabrics | The Ethnic Aisle

  43. Mary Lynagh

    where can I buy these fabrics?

    • Sofia

      Greetings! I am Sofia by name from India. I am into the business of Original Indian hair extension and African Fabric (Hollandius etc). If you are interested to buy, then do let us know.

      Remain Blessed!

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  47. I am drawn to “African print” & batiks my whole mid-west white life! The free mix-matching of colors is like a flame drawing me to it! But I admit to feeling shy to wear them – I mean – as a white person – like the heritage is not mine to be wrapped in. I suppose it’s ridiculous – but still, it’s there.

    • LWilliams

      You can always start with bags/purses, Remember white people are in Africa and your friends should know you better than to judge you. And if you still feel uncomfortable, knowledge is key. Know the culture surrounding the fabric, know where your fabric comes from, and Know in general why you like it.

  48. Pingback: Prints and more. | Un Peuple, Un But, Une Foi

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  50. Pingback: Authenticity at Jane and Finch: African Dutch Wax Fabrics | cdnimm headlines

  51. Sofia

    Greetings! I am Sofia by name from India. I am into the business of Original Indian hair extension and African Fabric (Hollandius etc). If you are interested to buy, then do let us know.

    Remain Blessed!

  52. Reblogged this on áirisi Magazine and commented:
    Rise Africa just started a discussion in their Talk Africa series about cultural appropriation of African fashion .. particularly African wax print fabrics. Here are some of my responses:

    “I think to answer these questions, we must first ask what makes cloth like ankara ‘Africa’ as it’s history can be traced back to Indonesia
    There is a great deal of speculation about the history of African wax prints. I was also going to share the link that Nrb posted; that is a well researched piece that is worth reading. Also research into the works of Yinka Shonibare; many people think that his work ‘glorifies’ African fabric but it is much deeper than that – he explores the effects of European colonisation/post-colonization in contexts as it pertains to Africa…it’s really interesting stuff. I guess my point is….we must understand the history of these things so that we can stand up proud and tell the world why this is ours, why they need to give us credit and why they need to respect its lineage and our heritage. I personally think it’s great that our fabrics that were once considered ‘local’ and ‘traditional’ and ‘archaic are now being accepted around the world. What I hate is the fact that western media still refers to it as ‘tribal’! They call Japanese kimonos ‘kimonos’ and indian saris ‘saris’ but anything related to Africa is ‘tribal’ or just lumped in one as ‘African’…Africa is not a country!”

    Follow the discussion and join in here: http://africaisdonesuffering.com/2013/04/cultural-police-power/

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  55. This isn’t just informative for me, it charges the mind and creates a direction for my love of African fabrics. This piece is what many young, lively and educated Nigerians would tag, “on point!” Thanks for putting it up.

  56. Rosiebake

    Pretty cool post BUT I always enjoy how West Africans are biased to make thing having started through them. I’m from central africa and this wax print history was did not spread from the west African Countries to ours. Try to be less of “everything started with us (Nigeria, Ghana etc)”. We received our prints from ports in Congo and Angola. So maybe it was the other way aroung. From Central africa to the Wester or all at the same time.

  57. Thank you for a Great post!

    Maybe interesting for you: Vlisco has set up a website to collect stories around the naming of their fabrics (the fabrics are not named by Vlisco but by the consumer).

    There are more than 350 fabrics and stories on the site:

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  59. Lovely piece. Thought you might appreciate something I wrote recently on the same topic http://chelumumba.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/what-makes-fashion-african/

  60. Please Eccentric Yoruba, I want you to grant me permission to lift this beautiful piece without alteration to be published in the Nigerian Observer Newspaper’s Fashion page for Sunday edition, with all credit going to you. I need to give non internet users the opportunity to read this article, my audience will sure love it.

  61. Pingback: Yinka Shonibare: FABRIC–ATION | Sarah Binless