Waxing Stronger with African Prints
Wax prints commonly called African or ankara prints, have been an ubiquitous staple textile across the African continent and beyond. Interestingly, designs and colours which appeal to people in different parts of Africa and Nigeria also differ broadly. The northern and eastern parts of Nigeria, favour completely different colour schemes and patterns. While in Africa what works and sells in Lomé might not have much traction in Lagos. I got to know this several years ago at a textile workshop organized by Vlisco Nigeria ahead of their new collection launch. The industrial wax print method was developed for export to Africa from Europe and imitates the original Indonesian java batik produced with the aid of machines. Wax printing is accepted as the first printing technique in the East, and is the most ancient of the handicrafts in China. More than 2,000 years ago in the Qin and Han dynasty, China began to print pictures on the cloth and dye them afterwards. When the wax was removed, the pictures could be seen. In the Tang dynasty, products of wax printing were exported to Europe and Asia. Later with the development of the economy in central China, a new industry gradually took the place of handmade products.
Today the teeming textile companies owned and run by Nigerians and expatriates have been forced to fold up by the increasingly worse electricity supply and poor rail transport system. Companies like Afprint, UNTL, Nichemtex, Sotiba, Specomill, all once produced beautiful ankara prints. The most popular textile, which women across generations love to wear and flaunt, comes all the way from Helmond in Holland, and it is popularly known as ‘Hollandais’ by Vlisco. It is colour fast and favoured by many because of its good quality since the designs are printed on both sides of the cloth. This makes it more expensive than the other wax prints in the market. In eastern Nigeria, the Vlisco abada as it is called has been given different names based on the several interpretations of the designs. It is also part of a woman’s trousseau brought by the future groom at her traditional marriage and used for significant events like birth of children and annual August meetings.
In Nigeria, the ankara fabric save for the likes of Hollandais, was usually associated with low income earners, creatives or usually just used as stay-at-home, everyday clothes. The status changed when in the second Obasanjo administration, a ban was placed on imported textiles. This made us look inwards and more people rediscovered wax prints and used them for more upscale and stylish clothes and especially as aso-ebi. Wax prints were no longer used for tunic tops and trousers for men, as well as for iro and buba or simple frocks for women. Women then sought to outdo one another with head-turning styles at events. In turn, many Nigerian fashion designers also stepped things up several notches with this fabric; it soon became a constant in many collections and at many runway shows. International designers were also not left out of the quiet revolution. With European and American designers like Cacharel, Dries Van Noten, Matthew Williamson, Junya Wantanabe, Burberry, Anna Sui, Viktor and Rolf and Stella Jean using the print extensively in their Spring and Autumn collections. Some years ago, Beyonce and Alicia Keys even went on full ankara for the music video of their collaborative song Put it in a Love song, which was shot in Brazil.
In recent times, technological advancements have seen ankara prints deviating from the usual and traditional cotton. Silk, chiffon, jersey and polyester fabrics are available in ankara so there is now wider variety of styling choices and designs. Some however prefer to accessorize with ankara bangles, neckpieces, shoes or bags instead of the head-to-toe look. Spanish foot wear company, Aldo made a collection of shoes some seasons ago with the textile. Whatever the look,this only shows that on the national, African and international front, ankara is only waxing stronger!
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