All of us are fans of the large and varied category of fabrics known as African prints. Deborah first introduced me to them many years ago when she brought some pieces for Julie and me back with her from a shop in New York. Then Julie gave me some yardage from Vlisco for my birthday.
“African print” is an umbrella term for commercially produced, patterned cloths made for the African market. The most prestigious, true “wax print” is a complicated process using wax or resin resist.
Many African prints, including some that say ‘genuine wax’, are printed with simpler processes such as roller or screen printing. They are still very appealing.
The designs often carry symbolic meanings, and are chosen to communicate the cultural heritage and status of the wearer. Many motifs appear frequently in different designs. Keys and locks are common.
Some have political or popular figures.
I always like the ones with birds.
These two were designed with a similar theme in mind, over fifty years apart.
Some are electronic.
Fans are popular.
Some designs are geometric and others floral. Many are both.
It seems as though nearly anything can be made into a beautiful print cloth design.
I’ve rarely seen African prints for sale in Seattle, but London fabric shops have a large clientele for African-style material. My collection grew substantially while I was there.
Julie and I even went to Helmond outside of Amsterdam to visit the Vlisco factory for a bit of viewing and shopping.
Established in 1846, Vlisco is the premier producer of African prints. It was hard to leave with only as much as we could carry.
The origins of these prints can be traced back to painted and printed cottons from India for trade between South Asian and East Africa. These then inspired batiked fabrics in Indonesia. Later, Dutch and British manufacturers started producing mechanically made wax-resist prints for the Indonesian market. When the Indonesians rejected their products, preferring their own hand-dyed cloth, European manufacturers shifted their market to West Africa.
There, they began to work with local traders, most of them women, to provide goods that reflected the cultural values and aesthetics of their clientele. During the 60s and 70s, newly independent African nations opened their own factories. More recently, Asian companies have flooded markets with more affordable designs, many of them knock-offs of Vlisco and other well-loved patterns. This has hurt the European and African companies, but has also increased the global awareness of African print textiles.
Both men and women wear clothing and accessories made from these fabrics.
Below are a few pieces shown in the exhibit.
Here are two more that I saw in shop windows in Montreal recently.
Why do I like these prints so much? Perhaps because of their connection to the printmaking techniques that have always appealed to me. Or maybe because of their playful and bold designs. They are as illustrative as they are decorative. I use patterns and color on clothing to add to the story in my children’s books too, but mine aren’t quite so bold.
I think what appeals to me most is the anything-goes approach to pattern design.
Fashion is always a form of personal expression. These fabrics just sing a bit louder than gingham or chambray.