This last year, I found myself in a store in Hawaii holding a rather large handful of Ankara print garments. As I wandered the store shopping for Hawaiian floral prints, I was stopped in all directions by the hints of this beautiful fabric popping out amongst the other slightly more muted textiles hanging throughout the store. Without thinking I ran about exclaiming “ooh’s” and “aah’s”, so excited and amazed at my luck. As my shopping time went on I began to hear the voice in my head that issued hints of doubt. Was it culturally ok for me to wear these textiles? Was it respectful? At the end of my shopping experience I left the store with plenty of Hawaiian floral garments, but none of the Ankara-African wax prints that I loved so much. I have some regrets, we all do. And putting those garments back that day is 100% one of mine.
As a person who loves bright colors, vibrant patterns, and juxtaposed, complex mis-matching, I have always been drawn to the Ankara fabrics of Africa. As a fashion designer, I love the bold prints and I strive to clash colors and prints. Ankara and African wax-print fabrics have been doing this very thing for years, beautifully.
So, I will say that until recently I believed that I did not possess the cultural approval to wear, sew, or create beautiful outfits out of Ankara prints. I was wrong. You guys I was SO wrong, and I could not be happier now knowing that. Finding the courage to broach the subject and tackle the truth of such fabrics I am happy to say that while I may not be the expert, I am writing this post to educate myself and anyone else that has a cultural tug of war with this amazing fabric. I may not get it 100% right, but I’m hear learning. Feel free to leave me comments. And just so you know, while you are reading this, there is a box of Ankara fabric heading to my house for future garments.
Here is why I love this fabric. Here is the history, the creation, and the why.
Ankara has a beginning based in Indonesia, it can be traced back to the wax-resist dye methods of Batik. The earliest evidence of Batik style dyeing comes from over 2000 years ago, but the island of Java in Indonesia took Batik to a new level. Holland learned of the fabric and brought Indonesian artists into their factories to educate them.
Dutch wax-prints were then created in the 1800’s in the Netherlands as a way to mass-produce Batik fabric for the Indonesian consumer. The issue with their creation was a slightly flawed print, imperfections’ due to cracking resin during production. They were not a hit in Indonesia, but found their niche on the Gold Coast and spread quickly in popularity through West Africa.
One of the main Dutch manufacturers of wax-print fabrics is Vlisco. The name Vlisco has become synonymous with the fabric it produces. From their website, Ankara fabrics are described as “batik-inspired, industrial produced, colorful cotton cloths (term in West Africa)”. Ankara is also known as “Ankara Prints”, “African wax prints”, “Dutch wax prints”, “Holland wax” and “wax Hollandaise”.
Ankara fabric may have been born in the Netherlands, but it evolved into what it is today, from the West African culture. Bolder colors, more geometric shapes and closer patterns were requested by local women. In time, new patterns were designed with symbols showing local history and proverbs. The specific runs of fabric were then named, which in turn gave them a sense of communication and foundation in the local communities. Today, this fabric is seen as a cultural status marker in some areas, and given as gifts. Fabrics are specifically made and worn for special occasions such as weddings and funerals, and also a daily staple garment for everyday attire. While you will see this fabric reach far across the globe, it is mostly sold and worn in Nigeria, Africa.
Many famous designers, starting in 2010, have launched amazing lines putting Ankara and other African wax-print fabric into the spotlight. But this has not been the progressive educational movement that it could have been due to cultural appropriation and a lack of basic acknowledgment. It is my opinion that we are about to see a change in this area. Starting with the amazing Black Lives Matter movement, taking place all over the world, people are pushing forward with cultural awareness and these fabrics are going to be once again find themselves in the fashion spotlight. This time hopefully with the acknowledgement they deserve, and a more racially diverse modeling team.
Throughout my research of this topic I have read many blogs and conversations broaching the subject; can a white seamstress work with and enjoy Ankara fabrics? The overwhelming response is yes! Yes, yes, yes, use it, wear it and best of all; educate yourself and others on its unique history and rich cultural background. Ankara fabric has a long history of people being drawn to the colors, prints, and designs. You are not alone in this. The fabric is amazing, please do not stop yourself from using it, just be aware of it’s history and give the culture that evolved it into what it is today, some credit! I know I am, and boy do I wish I had purchased those Ankara garments in Hawaii.