What You Need to Know About African vs African-Inspired Fabrics:
Africa has always been a rich reservoir of inspiration for creative industries across the world, sometimes to its benefit and at other times to its detriment. As the African fashion and art sector begins to take shape across the continent, questions about African textiles and their importance have become all the more prevalent. Given that African fabric lies at the core of what we do here at ONEOFEACH, I wanted to share a few thoughts about African and African-inspired fabrics. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Appropriation vs. Appreciation
Every year, there seems to be a revival around the controversy of appropriation; when designers in the West take inspiration, or some may say ‘borrow’, from Africa and apply their own interpretation of the continent’s myriad tribes and cultures. Questions of whether such inspiration is a consequence of genuine appreciation or leads to insensitive and commercial appropriation have dominated much of the global fashion debate. Designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney, Roberto Cavalli, and Donna Karen, have made regular references to the continent in their collections, some of whom have worked alongside African artisans. Likewise, Africans have taken inspiration from cultures in the West and the Asia-Pacific, localising their own interpretations to suit their market. However, there seems to be a thin line between appropriation and appreciation, either of which often leads to heated conversion and an unsatisfying conclusion. Perhaps part of the issue lies in our understanding of what is African versus African-inspired. So I took it upon myself to explore the differences in our textiles; where they originate and what it means for the continent.
African vs African-Inspired:
African fabric is believed to have dated as far back as 5000BC, during the height of the ancient Egyptian empire, which converted flax fibre into linen. Since then, African fabric has carried many cultural connotations, chronicling the histories of the continent’s kingdoms and tribes through its dynamic prints and vibrant colours, thus imbuing its wearers with significant meaning.
To appreciate African fabric today, is to appreciate its wide variety; from its origins, textures, and modern manifestations. The Bogolan, which means ‘made from mud’ in Bambara, hails from Mali, and is woven into cotton strips on looms, and sewn together to form a wide lightweight cloth. It’s then hand-painted with natural dyes, including mud from the river Niger hence its name. Then there’s the national Kente textile from Ghana, made from silk and cotton, and which used to be woven with golden threads for the nobles of the Ashanti tribe. From Nigeria, the Asoke fabric of the Yoruba tribe is mostly worn during special occasions. Similar to the Bogolan, it’s woven on looms into thin strips, in a wide variety of fibres including silk and cotton, and sewn together to give it its multi-layered effect. The thick and heavyweight pagné Baoulé fabric from the Akan tribe of Cote d’Ivoire, is also believed to have its origins in the Ashanti Kingdom. Its yarns are coloured with natural dyes before it is woven into long strips and sewn together. The Kitenge, is a well-known lightweight, cotton fabric that has spread across East, West, and Central Africa, albeit with their own aesthetic differences. It’s treated as a sarong, often styled around the waists and chests of women, or alternatively wrapped as a headscarf. Similar to this is the Chitenge from Zambia. The latter two fabrics are akin to the thicker Kanga and Kikoy of East Africa. Last but not least, is the cotton Shweshwe of Southern Africa, known for its small geometric prints, that most often come in various shades of indigo and scarlet.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of African fabrics, but they are perhaps the most common and readily available on the continent. These fabrics have come to define a sort of African identity, evolving from its traditional designs to more contemporary expressions. However, none of these fabrics, despite their long and rich history, have saturated the African textile industry in equal measure as the Wax Hollandais.
We know this colourful fabric well. We’ve seen it in the pages of leading publications, it’s graced the runways of Fashion Weeks in the industry’s capitals, and in the packed stalls of markets across the continent. The wax hollandaise print, otherwise known as Ankara print, arrived on the shores of West Africa, particularly Togo, when the Vlisco Group was founded in 1846. During this time, Vlisco found its competitive edge by identifying a demand for hand-printed textiles in West Africa, and creating cheaper imitations of the Indonesian, then part of the Dutch East Indies, batik print. Since then, Vlisco has become synonymous with African fabric, by adapting its prints to local tastes and visual markers of status, thus leading to the common confusion of it being the quintessence of African fabric.
Today, the double-sided, Dutch wax cloth is produced in a small quaint town in southern Holland and is primarily distributed via a network of ‘Nana Benz’ – women who trade in Dutch wax prints – in West and Central Africa. The term originated in the 1930s in Togo, where women grew through the social ranks, marked by their entrepreneurial tenacity and soon emerging as the only civilians who could afford a Mercedes-Benz in the country at the time. The women in Togo came to play a significant role in the country’s economy and politics, and more so in Vlisco’s ubiquity. Many African textile producers begrudge Vlisco’s dominance in the textile market, owing to its origins and its near-monopoly in the continent. Compounding this issue, is the rapid emergence of Chinese imitations, made more affordable for African consumers, and thus displacing local artisans and craftsmen. Owing to this, the line between authentic African fabrics and African-inspired fabrics has blurred, eschewing the traditional and local textile-maker.
Preserving an Age-Old Craft
Acquiring authentic African fabrics created by craftsmen who have maintained the age-old traditions of the weavers before them, has become a difficult feat over the years. Much of what began as a flourishing and rich African textile industry, has unfortunately dwindled into small communities of artisans and weavers, depending on the demands of local consumers and fashion start-ups.
Without the much-needed investment in creating employment for our local craftsmen, the flailing manufacturing sector, and the preservation of traditional and eco-friendly production techniques, the risk of losing ground to African-inspired fabrics that do not originate from the continent, remains high.
ONEOFEACH was initially established to change the African narrative, by sourcing authentic African fabrics from local producers on the continent. Since inception, we have made it our mission to source our fabrics directly from local artisans in an effort to preserve their craft, and ensure that Africa remains not only a source of inspiration, but a source of its own textiles. It’s unclear where the future of the African textile industry lies, but as questions emerge around its authenticity, its impact on local economies, and the pressing need for sustainable production, the answer may just lie within ourselves.