Dutch wax prints fabrics go by many names; Ankara wax prints, Ankara, African wax prints, African prints, Holland wax, Dutch wax, wax Hollandais, veritable Dutch Hollandais.
They are 100% cotton fabrics that are generally associated with Africa because of their bright and colourful patterns which usually resonates with African art themes and motifs.
One primary characteristic of Dutch wax is in the colour intensity of the prints on both sides of the fabric, which are even.
African Celebrities dressed in Ankara Fabric clothes (Source)
These batiks inspired print fabrics are extremely popular in Africa, particularly in West and Central Africa. They have become so entrenched that they have become more than just clothing, they have become a recognized symbol of African identity everywhere around the world.
People use the fabric as some kind of communicative means and expression especially groups of women. Some patterns can be a shared language with widely understood meanings. Some of the patterns even have catchy names.
There is a huge misconception everywhere around the world especially in the west, that African wax print is of African origin, and that the fashion is an African idea, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Ankara or African wax prints have no trace of Africa in their origins neither is it an African fashion idea or a creation of the African people. African wax print is a 100% imported product and idea, in other words, it is foreign.
The process of making wax prints originally required batik. The batik process is of Indonesian origins, it is a Javanese method of dyeing fabrics by employing wax-resist techniques.
Both the Dutch and the British acquired this technique during their colonization of the Dutch East Indies today known as Indonesia. They brought the knowledge back to their respective homelands, though at very different time intervals.
Indonesian Batik pattern made of cotton used for sarongs, skirts or other textile accessories. Production date: 1750s-1824, Technique: woven, batik. Source: British Museum
Early 20th Century Dutch Wax Print Fabric Making (Source)
The British acquired it first around 1811, and then later, the Dutch during the 1850s. However, it was the Dutch that first mechanized the whole batik process and started the global trade of the fabrics.
The driving force behind the mechanization was to reduce the human-intensive labour requirement of the entire batik process.
The Dutch wanted to recreate the exact look of batik without the stress of all the hard work required to make the real thing. They hoped that the much cheaper machine-printed imitations would commercially outperform the original batik in the Indonesian markets.
Vlisco Factory 1950 – 60s (Source)
Dutch textile factory owners received their first samples of batik fabrics around the 1850s, and by 1854 textile factory owners like Jean Baptiste Theodore Prévinaire, and Fentener Van Vlissingen had already developed machines that replicated the batik process. Unfortunately, these new breeds of imitation wax-resist fabrics failed to gain acceptance in the Indonesian batik market. Dutch merchants exported the fabrics to wherever else they could get orders all over the world.
In the 1880s, the first Dutch and Scottish trading vessels brought the fabric to West Africa where it received an amazing reception.
The huge acceptance of the Dutch fabric in the West and Central African region may be connected with the involvement of the Belanda Hitam in the batik trade. Belanda Hitam are West African recruits from the Dutch Gold Coast between 1831 and 1872 that served in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army during the Dutch colonization of Indonesia. Many of these soldiers retired to Ghana where it is very likely they started the early Dutch imitation batik trade.
Vlisco wax prints
The huge success enjoyed by the Dutch imitation batik fabric trade in West Africa prompted other players to enter the market. English, Scottish and Swiss manufacturers started making their own products and exporting them to the West African batik fabric market. However, it was a Dutch company (which today is known as “Vlisco”) that emerged as the dominant player out of several 19th-century competitors, such as ABC wax that were also vying for a slice of the lucrative trade. Thanks to Vlisco’s series of famous design quirks and adaptation to West and Central African taste of patterns and colour palettes.
Dutch Wax Print Textile Patterns (Source)
By the 1930s, Vlisco’s fabrics had come to dominate the region’s market, especially with fabrics that were designed for the elites. Many Africans consumed Vlisco’s products because it appeared to be unmistakably African. It is that appearance of “Africanness” that has been sold by local vendors to wealthy Africans for over a century.
Over time, the prints became even more African-inspired and African-owned. It also started getting used as formal attire by African leaders and diplomats.
Despite the African legacy and a thriving African market, European owned companies still continue to design and exclusively manufacture the fabrics for export to Africa from Europe.
It is pertinent at this point to mention that some of the European manufacturers set up satellite subsidiary wax print factories in Africa. An example is Vlisco who owns West Africa-based textile brands of Uniwax, Woodin and Ghana Textile Printing Company Ltd. (GTP).
Ankara Fabrics. Dutch and British textile manufacturers found a very lucrative imitation batik market very early on in West Africa. Well-known names such as Vlisco have been involved right from the very beginning.
The textile company that was founded by Jean Baptiste Theodore Prévinaire merged with another company in 1875 to become the Haarlem Cotton Company or Haarlemsche Katoenmaatschappij. During the first world war, the company went bankrupt. It sold most of its possessions to Fentener Van Vilssingen’s Textile company including its adapted invention, the copper rolling cylinder. In 1927 Vilssingen’s company rebranded and became Vlissingen & Co. (“Vlisco”) that we all know today.
Over time the company has adapted to conform to the demands of its African consumers, particularly the West and Central African markets. Vlisco’s former creative director Roger Gerards put it this way “Historically, a lot of our designs were created at the request of certain African traders”.. Vlisco hires African designers that cater to African tastes, their designs are inspired not only from African themed sources like African allegorical objects or African arts but also from foreign sources like international architecture movements, modern pop art etc. That is not to say Vlisco only cater to the African market, although as of 2017 90% of its fabric produce were exported to Africa. They also hire designers from all over the world that tends to other international markets.
ABC Wax prints
ABC wax is another such wax print fabric company with a similar story. It was founded by two British brothers and textile workers Benjamin and Joseph Ashton. Initially, it was called FW Ashton but it changed hands several times over time. First, it was sold to a Swiss family firm A. Brunnschweiler & Co who gave it its ABC moniker, then it was taken over by a British textile company Tootal Group (now owned by Coates Viyella) before it was finally taken over in 1992 by the Hong Kong-based Cha Group of companies.
The history of British wax print companies like their Dutch counterparts dates back to when the British captured Java (Indonesia) from the Dutch in 1811. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the then governor of Java documented in detail the laborious Indonesian batik process which he sent back to England along with 22 sample pieces of Indonesian batik. He challenged his countrymen to work out how to mechanize the process so as to undercut the more expensive hand-made batik fabrics. But ultimately it was the Dutch that beat them to it.
Sir Stamford Raffles. Shelfmark: MSS Eur D742/14.6.8 Source: British Library
In 1893, Ebenezer Brown Flemming became the first Scottish businessman to deliver the first cargo of industrially manufactured batik-based fabrics to the Gold Coast, and by 1903 he had started commissioning English printers to make wax prints.
Even today, some of Flemming’s first patterns are still sold. An example is his very popular design called “skin” or “house marble” which was created for a Dutch firm and patented in 1895. The record can still be found at UK’s National Archives at Kew.
The influx of cheap Chinese made African wax fabrics is a huge threat to the European wax print manufacturers mainly because of their ridiculously cheap prices. A Chinese made wax print can be up to ten times cheaper than its European made counterpart. Fake-VLISCO and ABC prints from China have now captured a significant chunk of the market.
Asian Wax prints (Source: Public Domain)
These Asian manufacturers have flooded the African wax market with tons of wax prints at dirt cheap prices, which makes it increasingly difficult for the Europeans to compete.
The situation is rather ironic as it is no different from what the Europeans did to the Indonesian batik market about 200 years ago.
However, despite the huge share of the market grabbed by these Asian manufacturers, the European wax print companies have still continued to remain profitable.
The demand for authentic Dutch wax print fabrics is therefore still insatiable, especially among the West African consumers. This might be good for the African wax fabric traders but bad for the true locally produced African fabric industry, whose growth and profitability has been stifled by the proliferation and dominance of European and Asian wax prints, erroneously believed by some African consumers to be an African product.
Dutch wax prints have become so intertwined with the African people that it has become a culture, hence there will always be a demand for it.
Not only are European wax prints used to make clothing, shoes, hats, and other apparels, they are also used for a bunch of other activities.
In some parts of West Africa, it has become a tradition. In celebrations and special occasions, it is used as “Asoebi”. Asoebi is a word used to describe the clothes of an identical pattern and colour worn by family members, relatives or close circle of friends at events or special celebrations. In some places, during burials, it is a part of the culture to present gifts of African wax print fabrics to the family of the deceased.
Even in corporate organizations, employees are encouraged to put on African wax print clothes at certain designated days/day of the week.
African Wax Print Fashion (Source)
Polished cotton and lace are also fabrics that are widely misconstrued to be of African origins, although they might not be as heavily linked to African identity as African wax prints. Nevertheless, many people from all over the world including Africans wrongly attribute these fabrics as an African indigenous product.
Although there is no exhaustive list of the countries of origin for countries manufacturing polished cotton and lace, there are established suppliers to West Africa in Switzerland, Italy and the United Arab Emirates. One thing is certain though, polished cotton and lace are not products of Africa, they tend to be imported into West Africa from Switzerland.
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- NIKKI BILLIE JEAN. Wax Print: What is Ankara? … What is Ankara Fabric? Published by AllthingsAnkara.com, September 19 2014 (accessed 5 July 2020)
- Robb Young. Africa’s Fabric Is Dutch Published by The New York Times, November 14 2012 (accessed 5 July 2020)
- Sena Quashie, PGG. How wax print makes believe that it is African and stifles the real fabrics of the continent Published by Medium.com January 3 2017. (accessed 5 July 2020)