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To Sub-Saharan Africa From Indonesia - African Print

January 01, 2018 4 min read

African Print Fabric History 

African print fabrics were born out of an attempt to mass produce Indonesian batik. Batik is a method of dyeing fabric using wax to draw patterns.  Various early examples using this dye resist technique have been found in West Africa, Egypt, and Japan. The earlier fragments of batik date back to first century Egyptian tombs.  However Indonesians, from Java, elevated it to an art form with intricate designs, using patterns of little dots.  Batik comes from the Javanese words amba (to write) and titik (dots). Traditionally, designs were hand drawn on the fabric with wax. The fabric is then soaked in the dye.  The process is repeated using more colors, if a multi colored fabric is desired. The areas covered by the wax, resist the dye and are left uncolored after the wax is washed away with boiling water.  


 African Print Mugs

A little detour...

Dutch colonization of Indonesia in a paragraph.

It all began, as it usually does with trade. The archipelago now known as Indonesia, was a trading center. Traders came from Arabia, China and India. Late in the 16th century, Amsterdam merchants tired of the monopoly the Portuguese had on the spice trade used a newly discovered route to sail to what is now Indonesia. This route went round Africa and meant it would bypass the existing Portuguese controlled route.  

Amsterdam Merchants Trade Routes.  African Print Fabric comes to Africa

The multinational corporation at the helm of this all was the Dutch United East India Company Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC, to which the Dutch government had granted a monopoly on the spice trade.  Over the next two centuries in order to make more and more money, trade with Indonesia escalated into interference with indigenous politics, and eventually a stranglehold of political power in the archipelago. Corporations, politics and the abuse of power.  Some things never change.  By the beginning of the 18th century, the VOC was one of the largest trading companies in the region. It became bigger and bigger,…and more and more political, because well, more money meant more power. It started to invest in mercenaries to protect its merchandize.  Unfortunately, it became more invested in the war side of its business and not enough on the trade size.  War is expensive.  By the end of the 18th century it went bankrupt.  The Dutch government took over the company and the biggest casualty was Indonesia.

Now where were we? Back to African Prints.  Being more technologically advanced, the Dutch automated the batik making process and tried to sell this cheaper fabric in the Indonesian market.  The Indonesians were less than impressed. Luckily Africans on their trade route loved the mass produced fabric, and very strongly identify with the beautiful variations of it to this day.

"Is African print fabric Dutch?"

Is sweet and sour pork Chinese? Is Taco Bell Mexican? Depends on who’s writing the story.   Being from Africa,  I will use my bias to subtext the flurry of media articles circa 2012.  


Wax Hollandais

There is no doubt that much of the early influence came from Dutch designers.  However today,  only about 1% of the global output is manufactured in the Netherlands.  What the dominant company Vlisco excels at is branding, marketing and customer service. For example, it has a very comprehensive website, and is responsive to enquiries.  Around 2012, there was significant marketing push to brand the fabric coming from the Netherlands as having a higher intrinsic value. Along with this branding push was an attempt to re-associate African print fabric with its dutch origins in the minds of consumers. In a promotional video from Vlisco, its representative states that "The designs have nothing to do with Africa".  One of this company's most recognizable designs, from the borders of the Dashiki fabric to the central cross itself, is in fact a copy of an Ethiopian coptic cross alter cloth.  Vlisco has recently bought out most of the remaining African manufacturers. 


Who Manufactures African Print Fabric?

As laws change and global markets shift, many of the dominant manufacturers have changed.   England, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Nigeria used to be huge producers but no longer are.



Ivory Coast







The Netherlands


African Fabric Designers Around the World

Ify Ojo - Stela Design Studio. Vancouver, Canada via Nigeria

Beautiful contemporary designs on satin fabric.  The pimped up dashikis are a treat.

"I seek to break this mold with a firm devotion to the African traditional way of story telling and commemoration of milestone events with fabrics. By creating modern urban influenced designs that capture the vibes and expressions of a sparkling African life in contrast to the dreary and uninspiring stories often shown in the media. My fabric designs challenge you to look at the old with new eyes juxtaposing ancient symbols with modern day objects." - Ify Ojo


Aboubakar Foufana - Mali and France

Comprehensive and captivating Instagram page with lots of behind the scenes stories.  Aboubakar shows the entire process: creating the dyes, growing the cotton in Mali, weaving the cloth, and of course the wonderfully beautiful end result.  His online store will be live in the next few months, so follow on Instagram for updates.  If this piece is anything to go by, I cannot wait to see the rest.

Aboubakar Fofana - Beautiful Indigo dyed scarf


















Banke Kuku



Are you an African Fabric designer or do you know any? Please comment below. Our readers would love to know more about you and your designs.



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