wax prints (holland cloth)

A recent article came up about ‘African’ or ‘tribal’ prints.

I wrote a bit about this while I was in Ghana: Cloth is a big deal in Ghana – every Friday is traditional cloth Friday and many employers have a special organizational print available for employees to purchase.  For women’s clothing, cloth comes in two main varieties – wax prints and batiks.  I prefer the batiks, as the fabric is generally softer (I was told that batik is the English word; locally, it is known as ‘tye and die’).  I have found a few nice places (and the egg sandwich lady said that she will take me to her favorite place when I have time (“That would be great, when do you close your shop?”  “Oh, that doesn’t matter, we’ll just go!”)) and a great tailor named Pearl.

The wax prints are quite pretty (though sometimes you unfold a piece of fabric all the way and learn that what at first just looked like a nice design includes stranger things, like chalkboards or hands or other unexpected images).  They are, however, often heavier and stiffer, which makes them suitable for many of the two-piece dresses that local women wear (or, more likely, the style developed because the fabric was stiffer) but not necessarily appealing to me.

Fewer and fewer of the wax prints are made in Ghana and are rather being imported from China.  Interestingly, some of the most venerated fabric comes from Holland, also by an initially Eastern route.  How, precisely, a Dutch cloth-house founded in the 1840s (Vlisco, in the Netherlands) has come to be the premier fabric in West Africa is still somewhat unclear to me but I have pieced some things together thanks to the magic of the interwebs.  According to the timeline on the Vlisco website (which also has lots of pretty pictures), initially the company mimicked the prints of Indonesia (Dutch East Indies) and exported their fabrics there.  In the 1870s, they began exporting to West Africa as well, where apparently the “eastern” designs had developed some cache.  The site attributed the West African familiarity with “eastern batik” to “the return of African soldiers from Indonesia between 1837 and 1872.  These soldiers settled primarily in Ghana.”  Who were these soldiers?  Evidently, the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, decreed in 1830, was populated by Dutch volunteers (national conscription was not allowed) and by mercenaries from Europe (Switzerland, Germany, Belgium), from the East Indies and from Gold Coast.  These troops played a large role in the Padri, Java and Aceh Wars.

Despite its growing popularity (and the growing importance of the West African market to Vlisco after competition became steeper in Indonesia), no director bothered to go to West Africa until the 1930s.  The African market became increasingly important to Vlisco after the 1950s and became its only market after the 1980s.

Published by hlanthorn

ORCID ID: 0000-0002-1899-4790

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