African print clothing, sometimes also known as Ankara, is a Dutch-influenced process of clothes-making that originated in Java, Indonesia, but is now famous for its popularity in West Africa. In modern West Africa, the prints are omnipresent and unflaggingly popular. To understand the uniqueness of the prints, we must look at their origin, and how an emergence of a more globalised world allowed for unprecedented cultural diversity and birthed the invention of the print synonymous with West African culture and identity.
The process of making wax prints was originally influenced by batik, and Indonesian (Javanese) method of dyeing cloth by employing wax-resist techniques. In layman’s terms, batik is the application of a pattern of wax to cloth that prevents the covered areas from being dyed when cloths are soaked in the dye. This method can be repeated with new patterns on the same cloth to additionally colour and change the pattern.
African wax prints differ from batik. Instead, they use they Dutch wax method of printing. Originally intended to be a cheaper, industrialised alternative to traditional batik, invented by the Dutch during their colonisation of Indonesia during the 19th Century, the method was meant to flood the market with cheap imitations to turn a huge profit. Developed by a 19th Century printer in Belgium, a French banknote-printing machine was adapted to apply resin to both sides of a cloth before it was dyed, which allowed identical patterns on both sides to repel the dye and produce the pattern. This process, a mechanised alternative of hand-application of wax, could be more easily replicated and repeated, making them cheaper and more widely available.
The fabrics failed to take off in Indonesia, but were received with strong reception in the ports of West Africa and were soon integrated into African apparel. Over time, the prints became more African-inspired and the unrivalled popularity gave Africa sovereignty over the designs and patterns by the mid-20th Century. The influence of these fabrics was so strong, the wealthy, the powerful and even royalty soon began to wear the prints.
In a globalised world, the erosion of local preferences, customs and norms is a topical issue. You can buy the same McDonalds happy meal in Nagasaki and Nairobi. This is a common critique of a more connected world - however, the resistance to the cultural erosion that globalisation threatens has not been felt in the African wax print industry. Colours and patterns comply with the local preferences of the customers; the importance of self-expression and identity that the fabrics possess has prevented the homogeneity commonly seen in the Western fashion industry.
THE SIGNIFICANCE AND ECONOMICS
The wax prints are part of a nonverbal mode of communication amongst African women, and the prints carry their message into the world. In West Africa, the wax prints constitute capital goods (and thus cultural capital) amongst the women, and are collected when financially possible. Wax prints are an incredibly lucrative industry. In sub-Saharan African, the African print textiles present an annual sales volume of 2.1 billion yards, with an average production cost of USD$2.6 billion and a retail value of USD$4 billion. The profit to be made from the popularity of African prints is a contentious issue. In Ghana, 130 million yards of fabric are consumed per year, however, 100 million yards of this comes from cheap and smuggled Asian imports.
Cheap Asian imitations of genuine wax prints are not a modern issue. The process of Dutch wax printing has been usurped by the modern world and the widespread use of digital printing methods. This is particularly the case for more detailed, intricate and therefore more expensive patterns. The commonplace term for these imitations is ‘fancy prints’ but are also widely known as imiwax, Java print, roller print, le fancy or le légos. Produced for mass consumption, the prints are ephemeral, prolific because of their low price point but infamous for their caducity. These prints can be easily spotted because of the difference in pattern and intensity of colour between the different sides of the material, as dye is applied using a rotary screen-printing process to one side.
These imitations pose an ultimatum for Africa. Cheaper fabrics make the designs more affordable for those who cannot afford the expensive European imported wax prints. As Africa finds its feet on the global stage, affordable clothing and the utilisation of digital methods to improve development and quality of life across Africa seems highly logical. But the smuggling of imitation fabrics presents economic and cultural questions for the industry. Does the tradition of genuine wax printing outweigh the increase in affordability and consumer choice? In design terms, the cheaper production of fabrics allows for designers to be more creative, bold and experimental with their designs as printing mistakes or unpopular fabrics are less costly. Either way, the influx of imitation prints has had a significant impact on the industry and the designs present across West Africa, and are likely to continue to do so into the future.