Wondrous Dutch wax

Let me recount a little internet meander that’s got me all excited about textiles and semiotics. I know. Semiotics. I must be listening to too much This American Life.

I was perusing the free trial edition of Selvedge and zoomed in on the article about Dutch wax resist fabric. A month or two back I visited a pop-up exhibition of African textiles as part of the Castlemaine State Fair. The portrayal of politics and events and status and society in the garish prints were completely fascinating. Even my feller in tow, who cannot abide fabric shopping, found it interesting. I have a couple of examples of Dutch wax in my stash; the yardage I bought in New York is a cheap Chinese replica (but! Giant shoes!) but I do have one length of rooster-strewn Real Super Wax Print I bought from a US eBay vendor a few years back. I’ve also made a shirt from this style of fabric. And Kazz is going nuts with it in her new shop – I seriously covet this suit she’s made.

Headless Esme models a swathe of rooster-print Super Wax Print in my stash. I have plans to make a *chortle* cocktail frock sometime...

Headless Esme models a swathe of rooster-print Super Wax Print in my stash. I have plans to make a *chortle* cocktail frock sometime…

Anyhoo. That’s about all I knew about Dutch wax resist, other than ME LIKEY LOUD COLOURS. The Selvedge article mentions a Dutch company called Vlisco as being the manufacturer of choice so I plugged Vlisco in the googlebox which took me to their website and all the glory therein.

I’m particularly smitten with the Homage a l’Art range, particularly this self-referential virtual museum of Vlisco icons. WOW. And they have a free pattern to download of a classic bomber jacket, if you like that sort of thing.

But it’s not just about the pretty. The phenomenon is all tied up in colonialism, consumerism and questions of identity. Artist Yinka Shonibare uses Dutch wax to explore these ideas and more. Look at his sculptures, for starters. It’s easy to see how brightly-coloured geometric prints are read as ‘tribal’ in a visual shorthand for Africa (you know, because, it’s just one big homogeneous place…) but the history, symbols and meanings are so much more complex. Western eyes might see ‘Africa’ (whatever that means) but the target market fully recognises the international origins.

Slate.com has a terrific article about the tangled cultural string. Here’s a schnippet to whet your appetite:

Though European manufacturers identified the fabrics by number, West African traders often named them, and those names became widely known. One famous pattern that shows a bird cage with an open door and a little bird escaping from it is called “You fly, I fly.” It is generally worn by newlywed women, as a bit of a threat to their husbands. “The minute they are named, they are also used to communicate,” says Jessica Helbach, a Dutch curator… naming the fabrics, and using them to express certain ideas, is a way for West Africans to claim the foreign-made cloth as their own.

(Fabric is brilliant stuff, isn’t it?)

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