April 25, 2015

Colonialism, The Dutch East India Company, and Traditional African Fabrics

Earlier in the week I showed you guys a new dress I made with beautiful fabric I bought in London. I called it Dutch/African wax print, when in fact that is a major simplification. This particular fabric was made in Holland, by a company called Vlisco, and is not actually wax printed. Vlisco fabrics are roller printed but the designs are made to look wax printed. The designs from Vlisco range from traditional African designs (mostly from west and central Africa) to modern designer patterns. The history of Vlisco and of this fabric is long and complex, so lets get started.

Vlisco began making and exporting fabrics from Holland in the late 1840's. They first began replicating ethnographic textiles by creating roller printed versions of traditional wax print batiks from Indonesia. Indonesians tended to prefer their homegrown actual batiks over Vlisco's copies, which lacked the natural imperfections that make hand made batik unique. The Dutch East Indies eventually banned the import of imitation batiks and Vlisco had to look to a new region to sell their faux wax prints.

Though unpopular with native Indonesians, Vlisco's fabrics had become popular with Ghanaian soldiers stationed there with The Royal Netherlands East Indies Army. As these soldiers traveled home to Ghana, they continued to be interested in Vlisco's fabrics and thus a market for the textiles in Africa was born. There had long been a tradition of trade between the Dutch and west Africa, so for Vlisco Africa was a natural fit for their imitation batiks.

Known as "Dutch Wax" or "Wax Hollandais", Vlisco fabrics were quickly very popular. However, production ceased temporarily during WWII. When Vlisco fabrics returned in 1945, they were immediately successful once more. During the 60's, Vlisco started printing "Guaranteed Dutch Wax Vlisco" on the selvage of the fabrics, as they were so often counterfeited due to their extreme popularity.

Vlisco also owns three other brands of fabrics, Woodin, Uniwax, and GTP. All three of these fabric ranges are produced locally in Africa and were begun in the 60's to avoid higher import taxes. Made in Ghana, GTP stands for Ghana Textile Printing Company. The Uniwax facilities are in the Ivory Coast Region. Vlisco has 1800 employee's in Africa, compared to just 900 in The Netherlands.

As you can tell from the Colonial edge to Vlisco's story, there are problems built into the trade of these fabrics. These Dutch fabrics, when introduced and even still today, compete against real wax print textiles and other traditional fabrics in Africa which cost a great deal more to produce. The designs used by Vlisco are portrayed as African, when often they originate from all over the world. Some people find the entire idea of these Dutch fabrics to be cultural appropriation taken to new and dastardly heights. A Dutch company making money off of Africa by selling them their own fabrics...things like that. This interesting New York Times article explains some of the varying opinions about Vlisco fabrics.

           "...Vlisco’s history has prompted more than a few intellectuals and cultural commentators to question or criticize the company for building a business on products that they say are not entirely authentically African. Vocal among them is the Nigerian scholar Tunde M. Akinwumi, who published a paper in the Journal of Pan African Studies in 2008 titled “The ‘African Print’ Hoax.”

Many others, however, view Vlisco’s Afro-European heritage with far less suspicion. The celebrated British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, whose work explores colonialism and post-colonialist race and class, has referred to Vlisco as “cross-bred,” and he uses its fabrics to create many of the European-style Victorian-era dresses that make up his work." -New York Times, 2012

The article included a quote from Vlisco's chief executive Hans Ouwendijk, saying-

“The fact is that the product is close to the consumer’s heart in Africa,” he said. “What surprised me most when I first started working for Vlisco was that the African consumers really feel like they own our brand, not the other way around. And it’s how they perceive their products that counts.”

So all of this information leaves me feeling very mixed about Vlisco fabrics. On one hand, it seems that if Africans don't have a problem with Vlisco, than neither should I. I would prefer to support smaller factories and hand produced textiles made in Africa if it were possible, but I only researched Vlisco after I had bought my length of fabric in London.

Still, I think there is a whole other side to the issue of my wearing "African" fabrics, and it still has everything to do with cultural appropriation. As a middle class white girl, where do I get off wearing a traditional African fabric? Is it as bad as pop stars wearing Indian Bindi? Ignorant girls in Native American headdresses at music festivals? Am I crossing a line, being offensive when I would never intend to be? These are the questions that have stopped me from making anything from this fabric since I bought it over three years ago.

It is true that the west has done a terrible job when it comes to traditional prints from all over the world. Calling them "tribal" and leaving it at that, never mentioning they are from Peru, Ghana, or other specific cultures. Does my research into Vlisco, and study of many ethnographic textiles in college, give me an excuse to wear such a loaded textile? I am still not so sure. In today's America, when we are still such a visibly racist society, am I pulling a Iggy Azalea by wearing Vlisco?

I hope not, but I have defiantly thought a lot about it. It comes down to where you draw the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. I appreciate the long history of textile production in Africa, and in The Netherlands. I think Vlisco fabrics are beautiful, but I also understand how they have become an important signifier of African cultural background here in America. I don't think it is up to me to draw the line, I cannot decide what may be offensive for someone else.

All this out in the open, I obviously decided to make the dress. I think the fabric is beautiful, and when people ask about it I will give them the short version of this story. In the end I decided that the history of this fabric was a melding of cultures, Dutch, African, and others that in the end created something beautiful.

What do you guys think? How do you feel about wearing traditional fabrics from cultures other than your own? Do you use ethnographic textiles in your sewing projects?


  1. Wonderful post and very interesting to think about. It's very similar to Pendleton's history of designing wool blankets specifically to appeal to Native American tribes, many of which have co-opted them into their own cultures. Pendleton and apparently many of the tribes look at this as a tradition of cultural cross-pollination, not cultural appropriation. I tend to agree, despite the lingering question of whether groups of people who have been systematically dispossessed and oppressed by this country can truly said to be equal partners to the degree Pendleton likes to paint them. However, Pendleton's recent "Portland Collection" of fashion wear DOES have the stink of cultural appropriation about it. Probably because it is not marketed to the people from whose cultures the graphic motifs were taken or inspired by. It's a tough question. Can there be any truly equal cultural exchange when one of the parties (groups) in the exchange has been traditionally oppressed by the other?

    1. I had never heard about the history of pendleton before! Very interesting! It has everything to do with the mis-matched power dinamic as you elequently stated. It would be different if the two cultures were on equal footing, and one did not have a long history of expoidting the other in so many multitudes of ways. I like the idea of cross-cultural exchange, or cross-cultural pollination. It is so hard to find the line between the global melting-pot and cultural appropriation, and it seems better to err on the side of caution.

  2. That you very much for this fantastic history lesson, sweet dear. I really learned a lot and have bookmarked it for future reference.

    ♥ Jessica

    1. I'm glad you found it interesting Jessica, and thanks for stopping by as usual! <3

  3. A very interesting post ~ I really didn't know that there was a back story to Pendleton, and it makes me wonder how much we just do know about these companies ~ where they come from, what they wish to do... Sometimes there's much more to it than we realize! Thank you for sharing though. I found it very informative.

    bonita of Lavender & Twill

    1. It's funny how some companies have more interesting backgrounds than one might first imagine. I had no idea about Pendleton either!

      Thanks for stopping by Bontia!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...