Black History Month: West-African fabrics

It goes without saying that we quilters love fabrics! Fabric manufacturers are constantly developing new prints and colour combinations to entice us to buy yet a few more fat quarters, despite the stash of fabrics already at home.

Today we’re going to take a look at West-African fabrics, starting with wax prints. These are primarily produced and found in Ghana, where they are mostly used for clothing. Many Ghanaians take pride in what they consider their national dress and the government even encourages people to wear wax print fabric on Fridays.

However, this type of printed fabric, which appears so typically West-African, has surprising origins. Its history begins in the early 19th century Indonesia, where there was a long tradition of producing fabric prints by a combination of hand block printing and wax resist techniques. The hot wax is applied to the fabric through a tube. The fabric is then dyed, while the wax-covered areas will resist the dye and remain without colour. The fabric can be dyed multiple times with different colours to create intricate patterns. Cracks which appear in the wax during the dye process create a typical craquelé appearance.

When Indonesia came under Dutch colonial control, businesses in the Netherlands began to copy the traditional designs in an effort to undercut the local market. However, the Indonesians were not fooled and rejected what they regarded as an inferior product. The story goes that the Dutch-made fabric was taken back to West Africa by soldiers employed by the Dutch in Indonesia, although this version of events is not necessarily accurate. In any case, the brightly coloured wax print cottons produced by companies such as Vlisco became very popular in West Africa, so much so that they began to be regarded as local traditional dress fabrics.

There is no doubt however that nowadays the best wax-prints are created in Ghana, with patterns inspired by West-African folklore as well as current affairs.

Another traditional Ghanaian fabric is Kente cloth, which has a a woven appearance and was originally only available to kings. It was recently in the news when prominent US Democrates wore Kente stoles to indicate their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement – a gesture appreciated by some, and not by others.

Here is a long read from the BBC about the history of Ghanaian wax prints, with gorgeous illustrations.

Ghana’s traditional textile industry is under threat from more cheaply produced fake designs. You can find out more about this here.

Here is a gorgeous pictorial of modern African women wearing their grandmothers’ clothing.

Traditional African wax-prints are used to wonderful effect in the mind-blowing work of African-American quilter Bisa Butler. Check out her work on instagram: @bisabutler.

Here is a cool article on Covid-19 inspired wax-print designs.

Serwaa Darko in her fabric store in Accra. Photography by Ben Bond, Clare Spencer and Phil Coomes from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/extra/4fq4hrgxvn/wax-print

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