It seemed strange to me that a traditional fabric from Africa would have word Dutch in the name so I decided to do a little investigating.
It turns out the history of the well-known fabric is weaved through the culture of several countries.
As the Western world knows it today, African Dutch wax fabric is a traditional technique from several countries in Africa and its history is rooted deep within the continent.
But in actuality this fabric came to Africa only a few hundred years ago and it is only recently being claimed by countries like Ghana, Togo, and Nigeria. And in terms of impact, nearly every country in Africa has reaped the benefits of the recent popularity of the fabric.
So much so that there are many different names the fabric goes by. What was once widely known as Dutch or Holland wax (by myself included) is known more commonly known as Ankara or Kitenge fabric. To make everything less confusing, I will refer to this as Ankara fabric from here on.
So let’s take a peak into the history and the importance of Ankara fabric to Africa and the fashion world.
A Textile’s World Tour
The original technique used to make the iconic fabric began in several parts of Asia and went on to be perfected in Indonesia.
Known as Batik fabric, the process includes a labor-intensive process of creating motifs and patterns on fabric using wax and natural dyes.
Wax is applied to cloth (cotton, silk, or other natural materials), dyed, and this process is repeated over and over again the desired look is accomplished.
Java culture took to this style so much that different patterns and color pallets signified family and status.
By the 19th century, Europeans popularized the textile and attempted to manufacture Ankara for both domestic and international markets.
Eventually, an inventor from the Netherlands helped to streamline the handmade technique using machinery. However, there were imperfections or cracks in the final product which was rejected by most of the market.
While the exact path from Europe to Africa is unknown, many historians agree that it was West African soldiers that returned home with the rejected fabric to share with local markets. From there, this fabric was quickly adapted to fashion and home textiles.
Integrated into African Culture
While the technique nor the traditional handmade craft of Ankara are inherently African, the vibrant colors and print of Ankara have become integral to African societies.
Some colors and designs are used to convey status and wealth. There is a wonderful article on Olive Ankara that give the cultural significance to the most notable patterns that you can check out here.
With African designers adopting it into their designs, they are also creating a space in the global fashion world as well.
Attempts to produce Ankara in Africa were made in countries like Ghana for a few decades.
Tight restrictions placed on start up businesses as discussed in a previous post stunted growth in the textile industry.
Now, most of the fabric is produced in China, which has flooded the African market with a cheaper product.
China has further cornered the market as many factories copy custom prints from larger textile companies, mainly from Europe.
Is Ankara Beneficial for Africa?
Just because the fabric itself is not produced in Africa, it still has created a multitude of job opportunities for many African markets.
In fact, the less expensive fabric allows for small co-ops and startups to build locally.
There are still some producers in Ghana creating Ankara, but ultimately it is up to consumers both local and international to create demand for the fabric by showing they value the craftsmanship through purchasing.
I am all for supporting accessories and clothing made from Ankara fabric found in the African marketplaces, as there will undoubtedly be some positive impact.
The important aspect to remember is that at the end of the day, Ankara has provided job opportunities and sustainable income for multiple levels of society.
Next week’s post I will show you how one US company has provided the opportunity for a women’s group in Rwanda using Ankara – along with a discount code to shop their new line! 😉
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