Growing up in Nigeria, I was always fascinated by the big, bold, and colorful prints that you could see everywhere you went, from the market to church to visiting relatives. My childish fascination was further indulged when visiting my grandparents, out of the city, for long holidays. You see my grandmother ran a fabric shop. She sold various types of fabric including wax prints. I would sit with her during the opening hours of the shop and watch the interactions. I remember the huge dressmaker’s scissors slicing through fabric that was then handed over to customers. These interactions often involved the customers telling my grandmother what the fabric was going to be used for: an outfit for a wedding, a festival, a party.
Fast forward to my days as a university student where I made and sold bags and purses. As my hobby turned into an online business I would often get asked where the fabric I used to make my bags came from and I realized that people were interested in the fabric itself for their own exploration and use. This led me to start up a second business sourcing and selling African made fabrics.
Through my business, Urbanstax, I source fabric manufactured in African countries and sell them to dressmakers, fashion designers, quilters, hobbyists, crafters, and anyone who wants fabric. I sell a few types of fabric, one of which is African wax prints. As an online store, we have buyers from all over the world and have seen the fabric transformed into cushions, dresses, shoes, toys, curtains, cycling caps and so much more.
What are African wax prints?
The wax prints, although called African, have a long and engaging history. They were first produced in the 1800s by the Dutch as an attempt to copy and mass-produce hand-drawn wax resist Indonesian batiks. These didn’t take off in the Indonesian market but found a receptive audience in West Africa. As demand and popularity grew, production was also established in England and Switzerland in the early 1900s and eventually in African countries including Nigeria, Ghana, and Ivory Coast after these countries gained independence from colonial rule in the 1960s. Today these prints are also produced in China.
My shop often takes our fabrics to various crafting shows in the UK throughout the year for people to touch, feel, and buy. We enjoy getting to know our customers while we’re on the road. Somewhat naively, I initially didn’t consider that some customers may feel uncomfortable wearing the fabric as a dress. I often get asked, ‘who can wear these?’, ‘is it cultural appropriation if I wear something from this fabric?’ ‘can I make a dress and wear it?’ My simple, short answer is anyone can wear wax prints. These are cotton printed fabric so sew and wear them as you would any other cotton. Liberty prints, which are quintessentially British, are popular all over the world, after all. This is purely my personal opinion and others would have a different take on it.
My long answer, on the other hand, is to ask what exactly is African fabric? What makes it African? The wearer? The producer? The fabric designer? A mix of all of these or none at all?
The term African wax print just doesn’t cut it. I would even argue it’s actually a brilliant marketing ploy. This is where the different debates lie. Somewhere here too is why I started my fabric business. I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the idea that the fabric is considered African purely because it is mostly worn by Africans. Africa is, after all, a continent consisting of 54 completely different countries. One fabric cannot possibly represent the sheer diversity of cultures and tastes. Perhaps that is a debate for another day. There is no such thing as European fabric, is there?
Although the major producers of wax prints were Dutch and British, it is the locally produced prints of Ghana and Nigeria that I fell in love with as a child. One of the things I enjoy about the fabric, apart from the unique color combinations and bold designs, is the meanings and names they have acquired in different countries and these are the prints I sell. These are fabrics worn by Africans but more importantly produced by Africans in African countries. Why should this fabric be labeled purely for its consumption?
Sadly, most of these textile manufacturers have disappeared over the last 60 years with only a handful still in operation. This is why at Urbanstax we only retail fabric made in an African country as I feel economics is a more important conversation to have than appropriation. I am uncomfortable with the fact that the creation of African wax prints does not benefit those it claims to represent. This is not to say it cannot be produced by others, but it is important that some benefit is retained in terms of employment, control of creativity, and so on.
It’s also important to note that various countries have their own fabric traditions. Nigeria has Adire which is tie-dye fabric, for example, and interestingly the use of these other types of African fabrics does not generate quite the same level of debate about cultural appropriation as wax prints when some of these can be deemed as more authentic.
The key thing with using or wearing African prints or any fabric that is distinctly associated with another culture that is not our own is acknowledgment. There have been instances where entire catwalk collections are made using wax prints with not a single mention of the fabric origin and its rich stories. This is where people become uncomfortable as this can’t be deemed as mere oversight.
Although wax prints were seen as a passing summer trend, it looks like they are here to stay. This is great as they are just so much fun to work with and to wear. So, yes grab yourself some wax print fabric and maybe find out a little bit more about where it was made, if a particular design has any meaning and if it is the genuine stuff. All this allows one to make an informed decision about using and wearing it.
Dolapo James is the creator and owner of Urbanknit and Urbanstax, a handmade accessory brand and a modern African Fabric shop respectively. With a background in architecture, Dolapo is passionate about design as a means to communicate, navigate, and enjoy the world around.
Born in Nigeria and currently living in the UK, Dolapo draws from her interest in building design, graphics, fashion, textiles, photography, and art to inform the direction of her businesses. Dolapo has a particular love for bold patterns and prints and unusual color combinations.