Origin of African Prints

Origin of African Prints

 

Source: Toshiie Koike

African prints are cool, right. Well, their history is not as cool as you thought. The history behind these fabrics has been quite interesting and complicated over the years.

Although they are worn mostly in Africa, especially West Africa within countries like Senegal, Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, Cameroun, amongst others, these fabrics, surprisingly do not originate from the African continent. Yeah, they are not African in origin.

What is known today as African prints, Ankara, European Wax or Dutch Wax started as the Batik fabric in Java, Indonesia, formerly known as the Dutch Indies. In the Dutch Indies locals were using the basic technique of wax-resist dying to create batik. This method involved the use of an etching tool called a canting that holds a small amount of hot, liquid wax that allows for intricate patterns to be made on cloth.  The wax was melted and then patterned across the blank cloth. From there, the cloth was soaked in dye, which is prevented from covering the entire cloth by the wax. If additional colors were required, the wax-and-soak process was repeated with new patterns. The fact is that these prints have a striking similarity with the wax prints worn today.

The colonial era of Europeans in Indonesia made its biggest impact in the 18th and 19th centuries. Batik was popular with Christian missionaries who used it to cloth converts to the church. Western African soldiers also brought back beautiful Javanese fabrics to their wives after serving in the military in the Dutch East Indies between 1810 and 1862. 

In the course of time, Dutch Administrators and Merchants who came along saw an opportunity to mass produce much cheaper machine-made imitations which could outcompete the original batiks in the Indonesian market, affecting the look of batik without all the labor-intensive work required to make the real thing.

Sadly, the mass-produced Dutch batik-inspired clothes failed in Indonesia because the method gave the prints a particular ‘crackle’ effect from dye bleed which cheapened the look to the Javanese who preferred their handmade products.

However, over time, the Dutch learned their fabrics were more popular in sub-Saharan Africa than in Indonesia, possibly as a result of the initial exposure to the Javanese batik by the West African Soldiers. They then ensured that the colors and designs adapted to the needs and cultures of the African to cater to the tastes of this new market. 

The interesting thing is that, in Africa, the wax print was a new, beautiful fabric with no comparison and this hastened its adoption.

As Europeans began to sell these wax prints, and the trade became a huge success, in West Africa, largely to women, both rich and poor, who regarded it as a marker of status—West African tastes shaped the evolving design. The local women traders who distributed the fabrics favored brighter colors, tighter patterns, and geometric shapes. New patterns were designed to reflect significant events and local proverbs. Though European manufacturers identified the fabrics by number, West African traders often named them, and those names became widely known.

In some West African countries the Dutch Wax, known as the “Dutch Hollandaise” is used as part of the dowry paid to families to seek the hand of their daughters in marriage. The fabrics are worn throughout the week and most, especially in Ghana, it’s worn on Fridays as a “Friday Ware”. On Saturdays and Sundays, African Prints are worn for Funerals and Church Services, respectively.

The popularity of the fabric in West Africa has led to its adoption as formal wear by leaders, diplomats and the wealthy in the society.

 

References:

  1. Europa Taylor, M, https://face2faceafrica.com/article/the-real-history-of-your-favourite-african- prints-that-will-shock-you
  2. http://mazuridesigns.com/blog/2016/2/4/a-history-of-african-wax-prints
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_wax_prints
  4. Toshiie, K., https://blogs.ntu.edu.sg/hp3203-2017-10/indonesian-textiles/batik/