Helen Scales

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My fabric obsession

I’ve tried to resist but it’s no use. When we leave West Africa in two weeks my bags will be laden with fabric.

I should have guessed that I’d develop an unhealthy obsession with the printed fabrics out here in West Africa. I suffered a similar affliction in Malaysia, coming home with masses of sarongs – an obsession I continued to feed by asking friends who work out there to bring me back more, more please!

I’ve used my Malay sarongs (probably Indonesian in fact) to sew dresses – for my many friends’ little girls and for myself. One dress in particular, a simple A-line shift, has got so many complements.

So, back in my study at home I already have a drawer full of colourful fabric, uncut and waiting to be used. And when I return, I’ll have to find more space for my latest acquisitions.

It’s not just the colours and shapes of the West Africa fabrics that I adore. It’s their story too. Because these designs – often crassly  labelled as “tribal” or “ethnic” – tell a twisting tale of mixed origins that spans several centuries and three continents.

Variously called Dutch Wax or ankara fabrics, it all began in Java, Indonesia. When Dutch colonialists arrived in the 19th century, they saw the beautiful local, handprinted batik fabrics, nabbed them, and took them back to Europe where they figured out how to mass produce them in factories. The technique they invented involved dye-resistant resin and roller print machines.

These mass-produced, colourful designs weren’t a big hit in Europe (perhaps we’re too reserved?). And they didn’t go down well back in Indonesia. But Dutch traders soon found a ready market for them in West Africa. Exactly what sparked the popularity of Dutch wax fabrics in Ghana and beyond remains a little hazy. Some say that West African soldiers recruited to the Dutch East Indies Army, called the Black Dutchman, may have returned to their home nations with original Indonesian batiks, thus creating a taste for the designs.

Once they arrived, the Dutch wax prints were embraced by many West African countries and swiftly became an important part of local cultures, symbolising wealth and status, and worn by women rich and poor alike.

I love the stories and fables behind some of the designs. Slate magazine describes the “You fly, I fly” design, featuring an open bird cage with birds flying off – this apparently is popular with newlywed women, to send a clear message to their new husbands.

Up until the 1960s, most of the fabrics sold and worn in West Africa were designed and made in Europe. Now there are factories in Ghana and the Chinese are muscling in, copying the designs and undercutting the market with cheaper fabrics.

Lately these “african” prints are taking to the international stage as top designers are embracing their colours and shapes and sending them down catwalks. And why not? I love the variety and boldness of the designs. And I find it fascinating that these fabrics have such a convoluted history.

I just wish, with my pale complexion, that more of them suited me. So I may end up using most of my new stash of fabrics to make cushion covers, accessories, and of course dresses for little girls.

Check out Eccentric Yaruba’s guest post on the topic at Beyond Victoriana. And that article in Slate Magazine.

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