I fell in love with large print African fabrics about 30 years ago on a trip to Washington DC where I saw women walking down the street wearing dresses created from fabulous material that I’d never seen before. Colors were purposefully bright. Patterns were intentionally huge. Dresses with matching head wraps were audacious in design and the use of color was inspiring. In a plaid skirt and turtleneck sweater my style paled in comparison. I loved African fabric first time I saw it and I’ve been chasing it ever since.
On that pre-Internet-no-cell-phone-era trip I sought direction from the Yellow Pages. I asked women where they shopped. I took the subway and trains to suburbs I’d never heard of before. African fabric remained elusive. Eventually, I found two pieces of fabric to buy – one in an African dressmaker’s shop in Maryland, the other in the gift shop of the Smithsonian’s African Museum. I didn’t know what I’d do with the fabric, I just knew I needed it, and I left wanting more.
The fabric I found then was packaged the same way it is today – approximately 40” wide and six meters long- not on a cardboard bolt to be cut – but folded flat. I had to buy it all, or buy none. Each side of the fabric parcel boasted a sticker stating “Genuine Dutch Wax” holding the selvage sides together like a sticky paper clip, and a huge label stuck to the fabric with the company name “Vlisco”.
The two pieces I found 30 years ago may well have been the real deal. Today, the fabrics – called African Fancy Prints – found in most African markets are printed to resemble real wax processed batiks – but they are indeed – just printed fabric. Andrew, my Nigerian friend and fabric seller in Cameroon, tells me that real batiks cost 20 – 30 times more than the ones he sells. Now referred to as “African Fancy Prints” this fabric it is largely printed in China, India and a few African countries such as Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal. (Shwe-Shwe is a separate style of cotton fabric printed in South Africa.)
But what to I do with this extraordinary fabric? I could not figure out how to use the large splashes of color and huge patterns – the very things that make African fabric so special. They sat in my fabric stash gathering new fabric friends as company, for years. As I accumulated more African fabric my stash got bigger but I used very little in projects. When I did, it was just a few inches here and there and I did not use the fabric in the way it deserved.