A brief history of wax resist printing

— and the rise of ‘African fabric’

Printing at Vlisco Headquarters.

— Vlisco Archive

The story begins in the early nineteenth century when Holland was still a colonial power to be reckoned with, in the days when Indonesia was known as the Dutch East Indies with Java at its nucleus. Since the thirteenth century the Javanese had been perfecting the technique used to produce traditional handmade batiks, a style of decoration originally invented in eighth-century China and developed further in India before becoming synonymous with Java. These multi-coloured designs were also attractive to the Haarlem Cotton Company in Holland, who saw them as a chance and a business opportunity. In an attempt to take on the market for Indonesian batiks, the enterprising Dutch began to experiment with industrialised processes that could compete with Javanese artisans, and in 1854 they finally managed to put La Javanais into production, a machine devised to make wax block both printing cheaper and more efficient. In a curious turn of events, however, when the Dutch batiks finally arrived in the East Indies their success was far from long-lived. The production process just didn’t satisfy the customers, despite all the modern technology involved. The problem was the ‘crackle effect’ visible on all the textiles, created when the resin, after being applied to the surface, dried and eventually cracked, allowing the dye to bleed through.

 

But the Haarlem Cotton Company were stubborn and business-minded and nowhere near ready to give up on their invention, so rather than to go on insisting to the Javanese that the Dutch batiks were of supreme quality despite their imperfections, the Dutch simply took their wares elsewhere. The Gold Coast of West Africa was conveniently locate on the route to the Dutch East Indies, and textiles already played an important part as exchange currency in the ivory, gold and slave trade. The importance of textiles as currency, couple with the fact that many African men had been recruited into the Dutch East Indies Army, meant that soldiers returning home regularly brought coffers laden with Javanese batiks as gifts for their loved ones. These textiles quickly became an acquired taste in West Africa, where the colourful prints fit right in with an already well-established predilection for fabrics. The Haarlem range, as the Dutch batiks became known, were accordingly an instant success with the West Africans, who valued their lightness, robust quality and chromatic resistance to the sun, and who, instead of rejecting the cracks and imperfections in the print, saw them as signs of authenticity and as desirable displays of patina.

Drawing room at Vlisco Headquarters.

— Vlisco Archive

In 1844, ten years before La Javanais was put into production, the Amsterdam-based entrepreneur Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen II decided that the established textile companies in Haarlem needed some competition and so took over his father’s role in a small textile company based in Helmond in the province of North Brabant in southern Holland. Two years later he bought out his partner and established the company as P.F. van Vlissingen & Co. Van Vlissingen began by producing textiles primarily for the domestic market as well as experimenting with batiks for export to the Dutch East Indies. he was always quick to seize an opportunity, however, an thirty years later van Vlissingen & Co were also exporting their textiles to West Africa.

 

For the following decades and into the beginning of the twentieth century Van Vlissingen & Co did well amongst the companies focusing on African-print textiles, and due to their sturdy network of contacts with the female market traders who handled their goods – the so-called Mama or Nana Benzes, the colourful older women in chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benzes who control the markets where African-print textiles are sold – Van Vlissingen & Co were always at the forefront of the latest developments in style and taste. The creation and production of new patterns and colour combinations was based primarily on the feedback that the Dutch got from their African traders, creating an inverted supply and demand chain of production that proved incredibly successful. It was arguably this inability to understand the markets in terms of the conception, marketing and adaptation of their product that allowed Van Vlissingen & Co to make the transition from upstart to industry leader by the 1940s.

Drawing room at Vlisco Headquarters.

— Vlisco Archive

European interest in Africa went from considering the continent a useful tool in the ever-expanding trade routes to the ‘scramble for Africa’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the African nations were divided up amongst the colonising powers. European-style fashions consequently became a sign of the mission-educated African elite. Accordingly, the decolonisation of Africa in the mid-twentieth century had an equally significant impact on dress. For a Ghanaian woman, to be seen in a kaba, or a Senegalese woman in a boubou, became an effective way to show national and cultural pride. With independence came a growing taste for the ‘traditionally African’ patterns and colours that the companies producing Real Dutch Wax had perfected over the years.

 

For Pieter van Vlissingen this meant that the time devoted to knowing and appreciating the colour and pattern preferences of different West African people was paying off in a remarkable way. By setting aside any preconceived ideas about the local market and instead listening closely to their traders, the company was able to develop new textiles based on traditional indigenous fabrics in order to cater very specifically to West African tastes. In the 1960s the great political upheaval in colonial Africa brought with it new ideals of freedom and independence, ideals that were communicated very clearly in the fashion of the day. African-print wax fabrics were enjoying their heyday. There was an increasing demand for these textiles and the Dutch were the main supplier. Van Vlissingen & Co again seize d this new opportunity, and after a series of mergers and acquisitions during the same period the company became known simply as Vlisco, now the sole purveyors of Real Dutch Wax and the only company in Europe to still produce wax print.

 

Text — Anja Aronowsky Cronberg
The story of Vlisco and Real Dutch Wax, Vlisco Fabrics, 2012

Wax-printed cloths are industrially produced following a resist-dye technique inspired by the Indonesian art of batik. Both methods use wax and dye to form designs on cotton cloth. The story of wax printing in Africa began on the Gold Coast, where Indonesian batiks were being imported from the mid-19th century. In 1893, a Scottish trader, Ebenezer Brown Fleming, introduced the batik-inspired wax prints produced in Holland by Haarlemse Katoen Maatschappij (HKM) to the Dutch Indies. The product became popular on the Gold Coast, and spread over West Africa into Central Africa to become a distinctive African cultural feature. Wax prints are prestigious cloths with a high social value. The most popular designs are named, the naming being an important indicator of adoption. An example would be ‘Akonfona’ (Sword of kingship), in which the design references the sword, a symbol of power and authority in Ghana. Wearing this cloth is a mark of wealth and status. ‘Fancy prints’ are a version of wax prints, they are printed on one side by engraved rollers or printing screens.

 

Printed cloths are worn as clothes by men, women and children. They play an important role in daily life and ceremonies and they have a significant communicative value, indicating status or wealth, conveying messages as a mean of non-verbal communication. An example is a cloth featuring the proverb ‘Weni behu naaso w’ano enntumin nnka’ (Your eyes can see, but your mouth cannot say), which teaches that not all issues are suitable for public discussion. Or ‘Physically Disabled’, a cloth made to highlight the needs of disabled people and to promote issues associated with disability. Cloths are also widely used as a powerful mass communication media, for commemorative, political, religious, social and other message conveying purposes. They play a major economic role through trade involving a network of wholesale and smaller retailers, in which women traders play a central role.

 

Text – The Fabric of a Nation: textiles and identity in modern Ghana
The British Museum 2007

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