Authenticity at Jane and Finch: African Dutch Wax Fabrics

A pile of Vlisco prints at a Jane and Wilson shop

A pile of Vlisco prints at a Jane and Wilson shop

By Adwoa Afful

During my early childhood, my Ghanaian immigrant parents decided to move our family to the north Toronto neighbourhood of Jane and Finch. Jane and Finch hosts one of the largest Ghanaian communities in the city, so I became quite accustomed to seeing small parades of women (and occasionally their spouses and children) covered head to toe in African print fabrics.

While we lived there, I barely took notice of these women or the beautiful multicoloured and intricately patterned textiles they dressed themselves in. I also grew up in a household where what seemed like small mountains of similar fabrics were haphazardly arranged in cardboard boxes and large Rubbermaid bins and stored in the basement. Usually they would sit there for years. During epic bouts of spring cleaning, I would mentally label them as “Ghana Stuff,” and then put them back where I had found them.

I mostly took these fabrics for granted, and rarely thought of their potential cultural significance. I was equally apathetic about their origins and history. In my mind, the fabrics were sent to us in big brown airmail packages from relatives in Ghana, and so were Ghanaian. Then, last year, I read Eccentric Yoruba’s excellent post “African Fabrics: The History of Dutch Wax Prints” on the blog Beyond Victoriana: a multicultural perspective on Steampunk. It seems that the fabrics that I had thoughtlessly labeled as “Ghana Stuff,” were actually the products of an interwoven (pun intended) history of the West African, Indonesian, and Dutch textile manufacturing industries.

The name “Dutch wax” refers to the processes under which the patterns are applied to the fabric. When creating a print, wax is applied to a sheet of fabric, afterwards dye is poured over the wax to create a pattern. These patterns are often made with bold and sometimes jarring colour schemes. West Africa has played a vital role in the development and growth of the Dutch wax print fabric industry. The question of whether these fabrics are “authentically” African becomes a complicated one to answer. Dutch wax print textiles do not originate from West Africa, nor are they (for the most part) manufactured there. But as the market for these types of fabrics has grown, the textiles are constantly being assimilated into various local cultures by integrating aspect of everyday life into the design. And so, Dutch wax prints have come to represent one way West Africans express themselves sartorially.

My mother comes from a family of former small time Ghanaian clothing manufacturers, distributors and designers who imported European fabrics to produce clothes designed specifically for the West African market. Though her family did not use Dutch wax print fabrics, she grew up with both a fondness and appreciation for the textiles. When she first came to Canada in the mid-1980s, she made extra money by working as a seamstress part-time and was often commissioned to make clothes using Dutch wax prints. When I brought up the issue of authenticity to my mother, she argued that while the cloth or dying techniques may not be African, many local motifs and patterns are integrated into the designs of the prints.

She took me to a shop at Jane and Wilson which sold Vlisco Dutch wax print fabrics. The owner, Ataa Kakara, disclosed that one of her most popular pieces was a print with a twig pattern, like the one at left here. The twigs are evocative of a popular Twi saying, “Dua kro di nframa ebu,” the gist of which roughly translates to "united we stand." The pattern communicates a sense of solidarity between the wearer and her community. Because the designs of the prints are locally inspired and, in some (rare) cases, locally manufactured, my mother feels that these fabrics are “African enough.” However, as Yoruba notes, the popularity of Dutch wax fabrics is easily complicated by the fact that European and, increasingly, Chinese manufactured prints are, in some cases, undermining local West African textile industries.

Examining what we consider authentic or inauthentic presents new ways for us to understand how we construct our racial and/or ethnic identities. For me, it would be difficult—perhaps impossible—to mentally disassociate Dutch wax prints from Ghana, despite their Dutch/Indonesian origins. My understanding (or lack thereof) of these prints shaped and informed how I came to understand and see myself as a Ghanaian-Canadian.

Adwoa Afful is a Toronto writer who blogs about the cultural politics of fashion at The Street Idle.