One thing I’ve heard many visitors say about their time in Ghana is, “It’s so colorful!” It seems like life here is extra vibrant, with many of the container stores being painted bright colors. However, I think the one part of daily life that is extra colorful are people’s custom-made clothes from African-print fabrics.
Different countries on the African continent call this particular fabric a variety of names: pagne, kitenge and wax are just some examples. Here in Ghana, this fabric is referred to as “African print.” However, I think this fabric is a perfect example of globalization and remixing art inspirations.
Combining Wax and Fabric
On the selvedge of almost all of this fabric, there will be printed some reference to wax. That’s because the process of making these prints is based on batik. The way batik works is the designer applies wax in a particular pattern onto the fabric and then dyes it. Wherever the wax is resists being dyed. The designer can then repeat the process many times over to create increasingly intricate patterns.
Batik historically comes from Indonesia and Southeast Asia. There, designers would create intricate and tiny patterns throughout a piece of cloth. But how did this batik process make it to Africa?
International Trade Bringing Fabric Influences Global
One of the most highly sought after items by European traders were spices, particularly spices from Asia. While there was the Silk Road, each country wanted to create their own supply line directly. Most frequently, this was done with ships. Some of the biggest maritime traders were the Dutch, who would sail around Africa to reach Asia and the spices.
West Africa is a natural stopping point for these ships and the Dutch had established colonies here to engage in the slave trade as well. On their way back from Asia, they would often bring batik with them. These fabrics would be traded and sold as a part of this international trade.
Additionally, the Dutch used some West African men to increase their military forces in Indonesia. These men brought back some of these fabrics, which helped foster an interest in them.
The fabrics were particularly popular, however some of the motifs really didn’t speak to the styles and sensibilities of the local people. They then used the batik methods themselves to create new prints and patterns that reflected their culture.
From Artisan Industry to Multinational Corporations
As is inevitable in a capitalist and colonialist society, the Dutch searched for ways to mass machine produce this batik fabric. A Belgian printer invented a roller machine that would apply the resin wax to both sides of the fabric and a new technique was born.
However, with the new machine came a number of imperfections that would not happen in traditional, hand-applied batik. For example, the wax would often crack, allowing lines of dye to seep into the designs. The fabric, with these imperfections became unmarketable in Indonesia. Seeing West Africa as a secondary market, the European companies moved their inventory here. Surprisingly, the flaws that doomed the product in Indonesia became the selling point in West Africa.
The designs evolved and took on more of the local preferences, sometimes even referring to local proverbs. The market women would give informal names to the patterns, which would spread like wildfire through the communities, increasing their popularity. Even today, the pattern of a fabric can be used to communicate between particular parties.
Vlisco is a Dutch company and one of the biggest names in this particular market industry. They have local subsidiaries as well, Woodin and GTP. Increasingly, the patterns are being copied in China and legitimate Chinese companies are entering the market as well.
There are also local women who still hand-dye their own batik fabrics, using wooden stamps of adinkra symbols. There’s room in the market for both.
There are plenty of shops around my town that all sell fabrics, but I prefer visiting with a maame who comes to town on market days. She has her stacked rolls of fabrics that I can scan through and tell her which one catches my eye.
Most frequently, I buy two-yards. This is enough for a pair of pants, a shirt or a straight dress. Sometimes I’ll buy more if I’m particularly drawn to it. If I’m really in love, I’ll buy a full six yards.
Most commonly, the price is 10 cedi per yard. Lower quality fabrics will sell for less. Going to one of the name brand shops will likely be about twice as much.
But the problem isn’t usually the price. The problem is figuring out what you’ll get made with all of your lovely new fabric.