History of African Print Fabric
The origin of African fabric dates back to when the ancient Egyptians began cultivating flax and weaving it into linen. Later, cotton began to be used more as a textile for clothing.
Today, different regions of Africa are known for certain designs. If I highlighted them all, this post would go on for days and days. Here are a few that caught my attention.
Mud cloth fabric is hand-woven fabric hailing from Mali. Kente African prints has its origins in Ghana. Back in the day, the most expensive Kente prints were made with precious metals woven in the cloth and were only worn by royalty. Fabric from Cameroon was made from the tree bark and was used to make accessories and clothing. (Source: www.afrolegends.com)
Did African fabric originate from Africa?
Well, the answer is complicated.
Originally in Indonesia, locals were using the basic technique of wax-resist dying to create batik. In the mid-19th century, these handmade textiles attracted West African men who were enlisted by the Dutch to boost their army in Indonesia. These men, some of them slaves and mercenaries, brought these textiles back to their home countries. This batik fabric became popular with many West Africans.
In the meantime, the Europeans were beginning to create ways to manufacture their own versions of batik. The goal was to flood the Indonesian market with a cheaper version of the batik print.
This goal came to fruition with at the end of the 19th century when a Belgian printer developed a method for applying resin to both sides of a cotton cloth.
The machine-made fabric had some imperfections which buyers in Indonesia rejected. However, these imperfections did not bother West Africans as much, and they adopted the fabric as their own.
Even though there are now West-African made fabrics and Chinese-made ones that are relatively cheaper, many people in West Africa still place a premium on the European-made ones.
They continue to purchase them for their dresses and suits, as a form of gift and as a sign of status. Some even add these fabrics to a woman’s bride wealth. (Source: www.face2faceafrica.com)
African Fabric Manufacturers Today
Today, Africa is home to the production of high quality wax prints. Manufacturers across Africa include ABC Wax, Woodin, Uniwax, Akosombo Textiles Limited (ATL), and GTP (Ghana Textiles Printing Company). Uniwax, ATL and GTP are subsidiaries the Vlisco Group. These companies have helped reduce the prices of African wax prints in the continent when compared to European imports. (Source: Wikipedia)
Vlisco is one of the top producers of African wax print fabric. However in reality, their ‘original’ prints were taken from the Indonesians (Source: www.slate.com) A fair amount of African print fabrics are made in China. These copies are cheaper and the quality varies by manufacturers. These prints provides your local seamstress an affordable alternative to the latest in African prints.
Is your African Print Real or Fake?
In my opinion, this depends on which manufacturer you consider to be the “authentic producer” of African wax print fabric. Is it the Dutch manufacturer Vlisco was one of the first to mass produce batik fabric? Or is it one of the other African based companies that produce fabric?
I buy a lot of African print fabric, and I can tell the fake Vlisco reprints. Yes, some of them are pretty bad and break down horribly when washed. Others are better quality. However, for most of the African purchase, I have no idea of the true origin. Normally, the origin is printed on the selvedge of the fabric. Often times, the origin is not printed.
If you are buying a ready to wear garment in African print (men’s or women’s fashions), check the tag. Many are these garments are made in India or China. If you want to represent the “culture” for a reasonable price, many of these clothes are well made for the asking price.
In summary, our global economy has blurred the lines of African authenticity. Given that the African culture has mixed with so many influences from other countries, I am not sure you can define what is truly 100% African.