105g Double Print African Batik
The story of African wax print fabric is a complex one. Originally, it was mechanized by the Dutch company Van Vlissingen to appeal to Asian tastes, but when sold in West Africa, these fabrics were adapted to suit local audiences.
Today, kanga cloth and its opulent whisper-thin patterns are woven into the culture of West Africa. The designs often serve as a form of non-verbal communication, announcing tribe, status and mood.
Batik or Ankara is the most famous of all African fabrics. Its myriad of dazzling patterns and colours are woven with the history, artistry and identity of the African diaspora. Yet this dazzling cloth has a complex backstory that begins not in West Africa but in the Netherlands – then known as the Dutch East Indies – as early as the nineteenth century.
This was when European textile manufacturers, like Jean Baptiste Theodore Previnaire and Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen, developed roller printing processes that imitated the handcrafted Indonesian technique of batik. Their goal was to capitalize on a market in Africa that had already begun to embrace the patterned cloths.
These new fabrics, sometimes called “faux batik,” were easier for sewing machines to handle than the thick locally woven textiles. They also offered a variety of designs and 105g double print african batik colours that suited the tastes of Sub-Saharan Africans.
As the fabric made its way across Europe and Asia, it was adapted again to suit local tastes. This process is still happening today, with designers tweaking their prints to suit each country and region they target.
Batik and its derivative roller print are ubiquitous and cherished across West Africa. Batikers stamp or hand-draw designs on cloth using candle wax, dyeing it before and after the stamping process, and then boiling it. The patterns, which range from florals and figurative images to geometric shapes, are full of cultural symbols and visual cues. Sellers and buyers invest them with personal meaning, announcing everything from marital status to mood. Artists like Yinka Shonibare use these fabrics to do conceptual double duty, claiming them as authentically African while simultaneously drawing attention to the complex networks of global trade and colonialism that underlie their existence. Batik is now made locally, with the same manual technique, but tweaked to reflect specific regional markets and port cities. The result is a collection of unique prints that serve a wide variety of needs and purposes, both traditional and contemporary.
Unlike most traditional batik, which are individually hand-dyed and stamped using the manual technique of wax-resist printing, Vlisco prints are industrially produced. The patterns are printed using roller printing machines, which allow for mass production and a high level of quality control. Traders and buyers invest the patterns with meaning and narratives, making them cultural touchstones. A pattern known as “You Fly, I Fly” is a favorite of newlyweds, who wear it to proclaim their faithfulness. Shonibare’s fabrics do a conceptual double-duty, acting as both authentic symbols of African culture and markers of our hyperconnected material world. African Wax print fabrics are also referred to as Ankara fabric.
During the nineteenth century Haarlem companies Vlisco and HKM began to export their imitation batik to West Africa (by then a British colony). Coastal West Africans were already familiar with printed cottons from Europe and were quick to accept the new designs. These fake wax prints were surprisingly cheap and their popularity caused both Dutch manufacturers to invest in expanding their factories on the Binnen Parallelweg. Initially the fabrics were produced using a chemical solvent called trichloroethylene which is carcinogenic. It is now replaced by a less toxic substitute, methyl ethyl ketone (MEK).
Traditional batik-making techniques continue to be practiced in small workshops across West Africa. Traditionally women would work in the workshop, carving the designs onto sponge blocks before printing them by hand on to the fabric.
Batik can be made on cotton, silk and other natural fabrics. The fabric is first printed with a base colour and then the wax resisted areas are dyed using vat or reactive dyes. This can be repeated to create multiple layers of colours and can be done with different pattern types. The most skilled batik masters will use a process of repeated waxing and tub dyeing to produce very complex multi-coloured designs.
The Dutch mechanised the batik process in the 1860s and began to export 105g double print african batik machine-made imitations of Javanese batik to West Africa. The European manufacturers relied on local women traders (called “mammie traders”) to market the products to their African customers and provide feedback on required patterns, motifs and colours.
Traditionally, batik has been hand-made using the wax-resist dyeing technique. Today, the most common commercial method for making batik is to melt the wax, dip a sponge block into it and then stamp the waxed area of the cloth with dye. The melted wax stops the dye from penetrating those parts of the cloth where the wax has been applied and this is why batik has the unique look that it does. Using this method, the fabric can be produced quickly and at a very low cost.