Africa’s Favorite Fabric

African fabrics are some of the most beautiful, colorful fabrics in the world. There’s kente-cloth, a woven fabric made by weavers in Ghana. There’s mud-cloth, a beautiful neutral-colored fabric that has graphic markings on it, and is primarily made in Mali. And there’s my personal favorite: wax-cloth. It is sold all over Africa, and comes in innumerable bold & colorful patterns. The bold hues and intricate, often quirky patterns have become emblematic of African style. The fabrics are sold to both designers and individuals, who make their own designs or have custom clothing made with the cloth. The most surprising thing about these beautiful African fabrics? They’re actually Dutch!  Many of the wax-cloth fabrics that are a hallmark of African style are actually made in the Netherlands. [Above image source]

During their colonization of Indonesia, the Dutch developed this printing method as a cheaper, faster, more industrial way to produce Batik style fabrics, but the style never caught on on Indonesia. It was considered a cheap imitation, and was even banned by the Dutch East Indies at one point. However these fabrics did receive an enthusiastic reception in another part of the Dutch empire, the Gold Coast of Africa (today known as Ghana). Originally, the fabrics were all produced in the Netherlands and shipped to Africa, but as the style caught on, many African-owned production facilities sprung up to meet demand.  Below, you can see a wide variety of patterns and styles of wax-cloth, shown here at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Philadelphia Museum of Art wax-cloth exhibit

Above image source

 So what exactly is wax-cloth? Wax-cloth is produced by applying wax to both sides of a fabric and then submerging it in dye baths. The wax repels the dye, keeping that area of the fabric in its original shade. This process is repeated several times, using different colors each time, to build up the pattern. The cloth is then boiled to remove the wax from the fabric. True wax-cloth print production ensures a clear print on both sides of the fabric, not just one. Many imitations, often called imiwax, will have a faded or desaturated back-side to the fabric. Below, you can see the rollers that apply the wax to the fabric in intricate designs.

Vlisco wax cloth rollers

 One of the most famous (and most expensive) producers of Dutch wax cloth is Vlisco. The fabrics are still made in the Netherlands in a 27-step process, that assures the highest level of quality. Their designers release new designs each year, along with reissuing customer favorites. Over their 170 year history, Vlisco has produced 350,000 original print designs, and have collaborated with a wide variety of womenswear brands, including Stella McCartney (seen below), Dries Van Noten, Victor & Rolf and more.

Stella McCartney x Vlisco collaboration runway images

“[Vlisco] designs aim to be as versatile, expressive and colorful as the women who wear them.”

table fan and galloping horse prints

The conversational prints themselves have become a kind of non-verbal communication between African women. The prints are highly symbolic and express the personality, desires, beliefs or status of the wearer. While Vlisco uses only stock numbers to identify their patterns, the traders and buyers of the fabrics have given them names and imbued them with stories and meanings. Take for example, the four Vlisco prints above. The Table Fan print below symbolizes that the wearer is has the economic means to to cool off with an electric fan, which was once the only way to cool down. The Jumping Horses print, also known as “I run faster than my rival,” symbolizes the tensions between co-wives. The Love Bomb print is symbolic of a broken heart, possibly as a result of infidelity. Sometimes prints commemorate public figures, such as Michelle Obama’s Bag, which is said to have been based on the eye-catching handbag she carried when she stepped off the plane on her visit to Africa.

The images below are all also Vlisco prints, and really show the wide variety of pattern and color potential of wax cloth printing. Loving what you see here? Should you want to try your hand at making your own masterpiece, select Vlisco prints are available on their website, for about 75 Euro for a 6 yard bolt.

Vlisco wax cloth floral batik print Vlisco wax cloth ribbons print Vlisco wax cloth leaves print Vlisco wax cloth leaves print Vlisco wax cloth airplane print Vlisco wax cloth geometric print Vlisco wax cloth starburst print Vlisco wax cloth loopy floral print Vlisco wax cloth floral geo print Vlisco wax cloth triangle print Vlisco wax cloth ring print

All images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy Vlisco.


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