Much has been said about our much loved 'African fabric' so let us take a quick look at its history. The popular 'African' Wax-resist fabric goes by many names, Ankara, Woodin, Dutch wax print, Real English Wax, Veritable Java Print, Guaranteed Dutch Java, Veritable Dutch Hollandais.
From Indonesia to the Netherlands to England to Africa
The textiles were first imported from Indonesia in the 19th century and the bold colours and patterns of the fabrics became popular in West Africa. There are various theories as to how it was then adopted by the Dutch who became major players in the manufacture and trade of the textile. Some believe that Dutch shippers on their way to Indonesia from Europe stopped at various African ports selling the fabric, and subsequently an African client base grew. It is also thought that the Indonesian market was not as receptive to the Dutch version of the fabric as it was considered inferior in quality due to the fact that the Dutch were unable to master the production process using mass production techniques (they were previously handmade) to produce a batik that was like that available locally to Indonesians.
There is also a theory that African soldiers who fought for the Dutch in Indonesia who served between 1810 and 1862 took Indonesian batik back home with them as gifts for their families. Once a local demand had been established the Dutch then capitalised on this and met local demand.
Trade in textiles manufactured in Asia between the English, Dutch and French with African markets has a long history and did not begin with the wax print. It just happens to be the most popular.
Many traditional forms of African textile design as well as the adopted and adapted are fast disappearing especially in terms of local production. In Nigeria, all but a few textile mills producing 'Ankara' still remain ushering in the disappearance of the skills, jobs and revenue for graphic and textile designers, factory workers, technicians, engineers and more.
Although the fabric had its birth in far away shores, as African countries gained independence in the 50's and 60's they built indigenous textile mills and started creating designs that better represented traditional African culture, where motifs and patterns and even colours of specific ethnic groups, tribes were incorporated into the design of the textile.
Dutch manufacturers have a long history in the production of this textile, which they produce purely for export and they are still believed to produce the best quality wax print with companies like Vlisco dominating the high-end of the marker. English wax is also very popular.
Nigeria once dominated the production of wax print in West Africa but is now are the mercy of Chinese imports and increasing instances of 'passing off' - where 'Ankara' which is Made in China, is tagged with logos of Nigerian textile mills often at lower prices than the originals. Interestingly, it is believed these 'fakes' are not produced using the same wax-resist printing processes and deemed inferior in quality with less durability.
Ghana is home to several wax print manufacturers including Woodin, a subsidiary of Holland’s Vlisco and ATL which is a subsidiary of Manchester-based ABC textiles. Again it is interesting to note that even though these textiles are now manufactured in African countries, the companies that manufacture them are largely still European.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW
The African textile mills are closing down, the ones that remain are being bought up by everyone but the Africans yet Africans are by and large the sole consumers of this textile. The popular indigenous varieties are being faked, the industry is at risk of extinction. What can we do? What can you do? Should anything be done? Who loses out, who has something to gain? We are throwing this open for debate, suggestions, links, ideas. We would love to hear from you.
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For more information about the prints we have used on My Asho Market this season, please click here