& THE HISTORY
OF WAX PRINTS
Welcome to uni design TALKS ! Uni design is a genderless upcycled fabric brand founded and run by me; Maya Bergeron. For a while now I have been looking for the right way to share some upcycled fabric stories about my fabric finds. The root of uni design came from a love of textiles and endless curiosity.. Every time I find a piece of fabric my imagination goes wild thinking of the life it could have had, what its made of, what kind of people made it, traded it, wore it, sold it, loved or hated it. I am completely enamored by textiles and fascinated with how they have shaped the history of interactions between countries, specifically between the Western world and the Global South. This first article is a story about imitation batik, a story that was too good not to share about a beautifully printed textile I found in a small town thrift shop in Squamish, British Colombia. This blog post will talk about the history of wax prints, the cotton trade and the relationship between West Africa and batik.
Thrifted vintage Batik
WHAT IS BATIK?
Canting tool. Image source Shutterstock
A woman and her batik in Java, Indonesia in 1929. Photography by W. Robert Moore for National Geographic.
What is batik? It’s a beautiful, traditionally Indonesian wax resist dye technique used to print textiles. Batik can be printed, stamped or “written” which is the original way, done with malam, hot liquid wax and dyed with leaves and flowers. Using a spouted bowl, known as canting, motifs are drawn on fabric with melted wax which is later washed off in hot water. Handmade batik is a very meaningful process. Unique motifs are historically and culturally significant and each tells a story. They are a way for both the maker and the wearer to feel connected to something greater than themselves. Specific patterns are traditionally used to celebrate events or important people, for example batik Udan Liris is used for wedding ceremonies or Batik Parang previously reserved only for the Royal Family (Valentina 2016).
Parang Rusak worn by a royal Sultan. Image source : The Batik Route by Marina Elphik
Wax Print Selvage
On the batik that I found, the fabric selvage was printed with the name “Logan Muckelt” which didn’t sound Indonesian at all. With a little research I discovered that Logan Muckelt & Co. was a British company which started back in 1889 and was one of many European companies that manufactured prints for export to the Gold Coast (today’s Ghana). One of the main methods they used was in fact an imitation batik, a direct appropriation of Indonesian wax prints but made industrially so as to bypass the long and tedious artisanal method. Indonesian wax printing designs were first copied and produced industrially by the Dutch and came to be known as “Dutch wax prints”. Britain, a leader in textile manufacturing, caught on and contributed to their introduction and popularization in Africa (Hill, 2007)
I was curious to know more.. Why was this seemingly African print made by a company in Britain? Let’s back up for a second and think about what global trade looked like in the late 1800 – early 1900’s. I recently finished the book The Empire Of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert which I would highly recommend for more on this topic. Beckert describes how, during the 19th century, cotton became the single most important commodity traded, in 1862 employing an estimated 1 out of every 65 people alive. Cotton drove unparalleled innovation in manufacturing and industry first in Europe but then around the globe. However this came at the cost of human lives (Beckert, 2015)
THE EMPIRE OF COTTON
“The coercion and violence required to mobilize slave labour was matched only by the demands of an expansionist war against Indigenous people” (Beckert 108)
From Picking cotton. Sysid 10922. Scanned as tiff in 2009/6/2 by MDAH.
Credit: Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History
The United States was centre stage in this growing empire through involvement in the cotton industry using the slave trade. Millions of acres of land was taken from Native Americans (two thirds of the land in 1850) and transformed into cotton plantations, either through treaties (often unfair) or simply expropriated. Cotton merchants and bankers in both England and the United States along with heavy State subsidies and infrastructure made the slave trade and the expansion of cotton trade possible. The raw cotton was transformed into cloth, dyed and printed in European factories and mills where mostly women and children were employed under dangerous work conditions. This cloth was then exported around the world by cotton merchants (Beckert, 2014 ; Hochschild 2014).
Logan Muckelt & Co was a company operating during this time where trade between the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia was expanding like never before. This expansion was only possible due to slavery, exploitation of workers and appropriation of textiles and textile processing methods from around the world.
“The design archive of Logan Muckelt and Co. exemplifies the interplay of influences in manufacture and trade. A merchant converter for the African export market from 1889–1961, company records include examples of imitation tie-dye styles and patterns incorporating traditional adinkra symbols ordered in 1900. By the 1950s, these appeared alongside designs containing images of televisions, saxophones and teapots. Cloths such as these, Sykas argues, exemplify the interface between African and European culture.” (Hill 100)
Dutch men drawing batik designs, Vlisco headquarters. Vlisco archive. http://digitalwaxprint.com/iterations/history-of-wax-resist-printing/
BATIK IN AFRICA
And so, a fabric introduced to the Gold Coast of Africa, made from raw cotton picked in the United States, processed in British, Dutch & other European factories, using a traditional Indonesian method was embraced by West African culture and became a wardrobe staple in the 20th century for over 500 million wearers. Although textile trade between Europe and Africa had existed for centuries, European manufactured batik was new and was embraced quickly by African consumers. The fact that it was industralized meant they could sell it way cheaper than hand printed textiles coming from other countries. During the first years imitation batik was very similar to Indonesian design using the same or similar symbols, motifs, colour combinations and shapes. However since they were produced and exported by Europeans there was little transfer of the Indonesian cultural significance of these characteristics (Wronska-Friend 2018).
Indonesian Batik Tulis Solo. Etsy.com/AsianBatikDesigns
Over time the textiles came to have their own definingly African meanings. The designs, colours and symbols changed to incorporate motifs directly representative of West and Central African culture. At the same time some important Indonesian symbols were adopted and became classic African symbols as well, with new meaning given to them based on local culture, bridging the two cultures together through colonization and capitalism (Wronska-Friend 2018). Some interesting research into different design meanings can be found here and here. There is no doubt that, despite their origin, wax prints are now a cultural heritage and source of pride for West Africa. Further, the art of batik was embraced to create a rich textile culture with unique regional designs. However with much competition and less interest from young people it is becoming less common. Two companies contributing the keeping African batik methods alive are Osei-Duro and Global Mamas.
Vlisco, a luxury brand based in Holland, continues to design wax prints for the African market using the industrialized batik method. Vlisco is an actual original colonial company founded in 1846 and it has contributed to the development of wax printing techniques to directly copy Indonesian designs from original samples. This is no secret and is even stated on their own website. Vlisco is known for letting their customers name their fabric designs, thus contributing to the fabric being actively adapted, appropriated and embraced by West Africans as their own. More on the significance of fabric naming in this article. Wearing Vlisco is recognized as prestigious and a symbol of wealth. Since the end of colonialism in Africa many factories have moved from Europe to be based in Africa yet are still European owned (Yoruba 2011;Vlisco).
Vlisco City of Joy 2021. Vlisco.com
“The (re)globalization and (re)appropriation of this commodity generates new domains of meanings and interpretation. Multiple layers of humanism are created through cultural hybridity; “a cross cultural fertilization” (Bruggeman,2017). Consequently, because Africa designates its systems of naming and meanings through proverbial messages; by wearing these prints, the consumer performs African identity.”(Appiah 2019)
“Inspired by Africa, made with a technique derived from Indonesian Batik, designed in the Netherlands, Vlisco’s heritage and design signature is a multicultural melting pot of beauty and industrial craftsmanship.” -Vlisco website
WHAT WE WEAR…
This story reveals the complex layers of today’s globalized world, particularly when it comes to fashion and cultural identity. The perception of wax prints raises interesting questions about what identity means, what is ‘African,’ ‘Indonesian’ or ‘European’? Each country, region and village has embraced batik in their own unique way. It also shows to what extent colonialism has influenced, even today, the identity of the places colonized by Europeans, as well as the layers of appropriation and re-appropriation of culture which happen through trade and commerce, which actually can lead to the creation of new traditions.
One artist who is thinking critically about these ideas and creating artwork using wax prints is Yinka Shonibare. Shonibare creates sculptures of European aristocracy, often headless, in various scenarios wearing Victorian era dress made from wax prints (The Bibliophile 2009).
The Pursuit, one of the amazing works by Yinka Shonibare MBE, Image: Goodman Gallery.
Yinka Shonibare’s Scramble for Africa features 14 life-size fiberglass mannequins dressed in Dutch wax printed cotton.
Yinka Shonibare/By permission, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
Given the history of imitation batik and provenance, the fabric from Logan Muckelt & Co. that I found was unlikely made ethically or sustainably. However, because it has been thrifted I think there is a lot of value in using this fabric and sharing these stories to create discourse and awareness about the history of trade and textiles, where our clothes come from, and the lives of those who participated in their creation.
THIS is why I love textiles! They tell stories of the people’s hands they have gone through, often crossing oceans and many borders. I wonder how this particular batik got to the thrift shop in Squamish, British Colombia. Maybe it was worn by Ghanaian women immigrating to Canada, or bought by a Canadian tourist visiting Nigeria. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever find out, but that’s half of the fun… just to imagine.
uni design Vintage Imitation Batik Top
uni design Vintage Imitation Batik Top
I hope you enjoyed my first blog post ! Please let me know what you think in comments and share with anyone who might be interested
Works Cited & Further Reading
Appiah, Venessa. Printed Silent Speech: The Cultural Enrichment of Dutch Wax Prints in Ghana. Medium.com, August 12 2019. https://medium.com/@Venessa.Appiah/printed-silent-speech-a177820307b5
Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton. Penguin Books, Dec. 2, 2014.
Bruggeman, D. (2017), ‘Vlisco: Made in Holland, adorned in West Africa, (re)appropriated as Dutch design’, Fashion, Style & Popular Culture, 4: 2, pp. 197–214, doi: 10.1386/fspc.4.2.197_1
Hochschild, Adam. “Review of The Empire of Cotton : A Global History” by Sven Beckert, The New York Times, Dec. 31. 2014
June Hill (2007) The Secret Life of Textiles: Six Pattern Book Archives in North West England, Philip Anthony Sykas, TEXTILE, 5:1, 98-101, DOI: 10.2752/147597507780338880
Rypl, Khrista. “These Textiles Tell a Cultural History” Studio 360. Dec 21, 2015. https://www.wnyc.org/story/sideshow-textiles-tell-cultural-history/
Wronska-Friend, Maria. “Batik of Java: Global Inspiration”(2018). Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings. 1080. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/1080
Wronska-Friend, Maria, “Batik of Java: Global Inspiration” (2018). Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings. 1080. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/1080
Valentina, Jessicha. “Batik: a Cultural Dilemma of Infatuation and Appreciation.” The Jakarta Post, 2016/11/29, https://www.thejakartapost.com/longform/2016/11/29/batik-a-cultural-dilemma-of-infatuation-and-appreciation.html
Yoruba, Eccentric. “”African Fabrics””:The History of Dutch Wax Prints-Guest Blog by Eccentric Yoruba”. April 10, 2011. https://beyondvictoriana.com/2011/04/10/african-fabrics-the-history-of-dutch-wax-prints-guest-blog-by-eccentric-yoruba/