Patterns in Circulation

Image — Sabine Bolk

The story of wax cloth is one of global trade and cross-cultural aesthetics. Follow wax cloth around the world and through time to unveil its critical role in colonial and postcolonial patterns of exchange and value production.

‘This time the Dutch did not simply copy West African printing techniques. Instead they used a mechanised Javanese wax -resist printing and dyeing technology to copy patterns found in West African textiles.’ NS 5

Sartorial hierarchy


‘…consumers rank factory-printed cloth by quality and origin on a hierarchy of value and prestige, with Dutch wax at the top followed by Ivorian, Ghanaian, Nigerian, and Chinese wax. Roller-printed ‘fancy’ prints rank at the bottom of this hierarchy.’ NS 17

Archival Prints

Image — Vlisco

Alternate histories of taste and circulation


‘Cloth and clothing constitute a special kind of commodity that is at once an “art form” and an economic object, possessing an “inordinate number of designing, producing, and marketing variables” (Cox 1938, 225-38, in Steiner 1985, 106).’ NS 74

‘Cloth and clothing are central vehicles through which social relations are produced and reproduced.’ NS 74

‘Today a (“practise still used today”) feedback loop still exists between clientele and producers, where samples are sent ahead of cargoes to test the designs’ market potential before (mass) producing them.’ NS 74

‘Historically, patterns have been copied, altered and hybridised along imperial trade routes to become African classics.’ NS 74


‘Sample books place a great deal of agency at the consumer’s feet. They are a book of choices that, while limited by what the producer offers ready-made, may yet still be reconfigured and open to consumer intervention. They are a quick guide to what is commercially and scientifically possible but do not exhaust the design possibilities of what is to come. A sample has a contingent quality. It is a conditional object that might be produced or sold, or might not, depends no on how tastemakers work with and contribute to shaping it. The presence of historical sample books in the Vlisco archive is a strong indication of the kind of experimental labor that went into the making of wax cloth and the knowledge produced…’ NS 75

‘…the sample is also a material indication of exchange.’ NS 75

‘The sample… indicates an ongoing aesthetic process.’ NS 75

‘…both the source and the product: it serves as a stock of patterns and colorings – of diverse cultural and aesthetic origins – of different historical provenance – that can be reproduced, copied, changed, and varied. It is also a form of documentation of precisely these processes.’ NS 75

‘Once the market for Dutch wax was firmly established, Togolese women continued to be central in the mutual making and remaking of cloth and subjectivity.’ NS 75


‘African tastemakers added layers of meaning and material qualities to cloth through naming, displaying, and claiming it as property.’ NS 76


‘The special character of the cloth as a material, visual and symbolic marker of political, national, and gendered economic power. NS 78

The cloth is ‘the medium through which the spectacle of power becomes tangible and legible, on the one hand, and how cloth comes to stand for the social and cultural fabric of the nation on the other’. Tapping into its dense materiality, the nana benz (re)worked the cloth by creating value out of its sensory, aesthetics, and semiotic qualities; then they branded the commodity and made it uniquely theirs.’ NS 78


‘It is the high visibility and omnipresence of this material and visual object to across multiple spheres, from the most intimate and common social use via popular and exclusive fashions to its enrollment in state spectacles, that makes it such a forceful medium.’ NS 79

‘Women emerged historically as a distinct group of entrepreneurs. What it means to be a textile entrepreneur today is built upon the legacy of these women.’ NS 79


The story of the Nana Benz is ‘about the rise of women’s power through the history of the cloth, its trade, and the making of an essential West African consumer item.’ NS 80

Flexible Patterns

Image – Vlisco

The Nanettes Remake the Market and Cloth in China NS 113


‘As Nanettes fashion their entrepreneurial strategies with and on the material qualities of cloth in China, they are both animating and animated by the materials’ own flexibility. Cloth’s dense materiality inspires traders to collaborate, innovate and tinker with pagne design in China.’ NS 113

Les Nanettes NS 121


‘The Nanette is not quite a Nana, but she has the ambition to accumulate wealth and be rich and powerful like a Nana Benz. To be a Nanette means to not be afraid to take risks, to travel often, and to work several trades at the same time, all in highly flexible ways. Just like the Nana Benz, she is similarly ingenious arbiter of style and taste who imports new products and transforms Dutch designs. However, the Nanette is not protected by her manufacturer, nor does she benefit from the prestige Dutch wax evokes. Her position is never secure; it remains precarious and linked to short-term investments. Although the Nanas had long controlled an international trade network that required flexible skills to predict color and design trends across the region or to recuperate credit transnationally from clients, their work was relatively stable, and they traveled only moderately. Their relationships with European distributors and wax cloth manufacturers, albeit now transformed, were previously established and reliable. The younger Nanette, by contrast, straddles different manufacturers, intervenes in the production process, and travels globally to Shanghai and Guangzhou Province in China, to Hong Kong, Dubai, Malaysia, and Thailand. Furthermore, she often transacts in more than one product domain. In addition to cloth, a Nanette may import shoes, handbags, jewelery, or other fashion accessories.’ NS 121


Many Nanettes make their money dealing in copies of Dutch wax made in China.

‘Superwax was launched in the 1970s and was considered the highest quality print in the Vlisco collection. It featured three colors rather than two, and was popular for its abstract patterns and especially bright and vivacious hues.’ NS 123

Designing “Consumer Democritization” into Cloth NS 125


Another characteristic of the Nanette figure: investment into their own ingenuity.


‘In helping to reengineer cloth’s materiality, the hyper-counterfeiting Nanettes are doing more than producing false images that betray consumers; they are also fabricating, if not co-constituting, its enchanting effect.’ NS 125


Moving Cloth, Shaping Entrepreneurial Flexibilities NS 129


‘Antoinette’s pioneering entrepreneurial trajectory exemplifies how traders make themselves flexible economic subjects through distinctive elements of discovery, innovation, cultural knowledge, and technological expertise.’ NS 129

The entire market hosts prints produced though authorised and unauthorised channels.

Research –
Relph, Magie and Irwin, Robert. 2010. “African Wax Print: A Textile Journey”. Words and Pixels. MR & RI


Sylvanus, Nina. 2016. “Patterns in Circulation: Cloth, Gender & Materiality in West Africa”. The University of Chicago. NS