Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Vlisco Wax Resist Fabrics

Vlisco_SelvedgeBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Vlisco

Britain, Europe and North America no longer produce textiles; they consume textiles. This mantra has become a familiar lament within the textile industry. But tucked between rules there are always exceptions. How Dutch wax resist fabric found such a popular home in west and central Africa is one example of a beguiling exception to the rule.

The Dutch company Vlisco has designed and produced wax resist textiles since 1846, marketing the cloth in Africa since the end of the nineteenth century. Today the company is self-named as the “sole authentic designer and manufacturer of such fabrics as Wax Hollandais”. New collections are launched every quarter from Vlisco’s factory in Helmond near Eindhoven in The Netherlands. But Vlisco’s market is far from local. Throughout west and central African nations of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Senegal, Vlisco is a status product.

How The Netherlands came to manufacture wax resist cloth for the west and central African markets isn’t a short story. The islands of present-day Indonesia have a refined tradition of wax resist cloth patterned by hand, referred to as batik tulis. During Dutch colonisation of the region mechanised batik production was taken up in The Netherlands, as well as other textile manufacturing centres such as Manchester. But the anticipated trade with the Dutch East Indies did not take off as hoped. Some cite tax levies as contributing to the commercial challenge. Others have interpreted the distinctive veining of colour where the wax cracks and exposes the cloth to dye during mechanical production as aesthetically unpopular with the local market. Either way, the Dutch traders found a new market for their product in the West African ports where they stopped en route to Java. This coupled with African mercenary soldiers returning from the region with gifts of batik cloth for their families created an unanticipated market for what soon became a “new” tradition.

One significant difference sets Vlisco apart from the luxury brands familiar to Europe. The company creates cloth, rather than products. Unlike the uniform sense of style that populates the British high street, many African dress traditions still privilege the purchase of lengths of cloth, which women, working with seamstresses, design into their own unique garments. The cloth adapts well to wrapped and twisted designs in part because the printing process saturates the front and back of the fabric in equal intensity. As recently as twenty years ago, cutting into a piece of Vlisco cloth to create a sewn garment would be seen as an anathema. It is only in recent decades that the cloth has been handled in a way familiar to conventional British or European cut and sewn garment construction. Today when made into a one-off garment, each consumer effectively wears a unique creation.

A curious contradiction has taken root in the west and central African nations. “Our product became part of the African cultural heritage,” explains Vlisco’s Creative Director Roger Gerards. This shift is as strong today as it was half a century before. What was – and remains – an import to the region grew into a symbol of national pride. José Teunissen in his excellent history of Vlisco explains, “The fabric may be designed and manufactured in Helmond, but the patterns do not acquire meaning until they get to Africa, in dialogue with market women and merchants. The wearer then transforms the fabric into a garment (alone or in consultation with a dressmaker) in which the pattern is critical to the final silhouette. This process has continued unchanged for almost a century.” Teunissen explains that this tradition of naming holds symbolic as well as practical significance. “By giving a design a name – and thereby endowing it with a unique meaning – the African women appropriate the cloth produced in the West and make it part of their own culture. By means of naming, this foreign, European commodity is annexed and transformed into something that is truly their own. The European becomes the African.”

Vlisco’s European production may have become a seamless aspect of west and central African visual culture, but we live in times that are far from stable. When China became a member of the World Trade Organisation in 2001 trade restrictions on Chinese textiles came to an end. Chinese versions of Dutch wax resist prints, sold at much lower prices, flooded onto African markets. By 2006 the competition prompted Vlisco to rethink its market identity. Thematic collections of prints realised every season were introduced, much like the seasonal collections of a fashion company. This pace of production posed an intentional challenge to copycats, while driving market appetite for the brand.

The Vlisco design studios in Helmond are housed beside the company’s production facility. Designers travel to west and central Africa in their first three years of working for the company, as much to experience where their designs go as to bring back local inspiration. Bollywood posters, current magazines and individual sources of reference are peppered throughout the studio, where the grey winter skies of Holland are a world away from the climates where these textiles will be worn. Colours often look intense when seen under the cloudy skies of Britain or The Netherlands. But this cloth is destined for climates of much stronger sunlight, often worn by women with black rather than white skin.

While designers work between the digital tools and marks made by hand, a clear line has been drawn when it comes to digital production. Knock offs from China are a real concern to the company and distinctive production processes offer some protection against piracy. In reality, a digitally printed collection becomes easier, rather than harder, to copy. Instead, investment is focusing on new production methods to encourage the crackle effect distinctive to the Vlisco line. This technique creates unique pieces of cloth, with the background veining impossible to replicate identically from one cloth to the next. It is curious to think that what was once deemed a production flaw is now so crucial to the identity of Vlisco that equipment is under development to enhance this “flaw”. But rules always have their exceptions, and Vlisco continues to thrive as a fascinating exception to many rules.

Selvedge Magazine (issue 50: 39-42)