A Brief History of African Textiles: Wax Print

Two years into running Expedition Subsahara, I have learned an incredible amount about African textiles, sourcing and origins. One thing I was surprised — or actually shocked — to learn is that "African wax print" did not originate in Africa, nor are many of them manufactured in African countries. Until I began looking for authentic materials for our products, I assumed like most wax print came from various African countries. But the fact is that the vast majority of wax print, even in patterns that have become synonymous with Africa and Africans, comes from Europe and China. 

Finding authentic wax print was a journey, and having that authenticity was so important to me that it is the reason there are far fewer wax print products in the shop now than there initially was. In some ways, it was disheartening to learn the history. Growing up in Senegal, all of my clothes were created from wax print fabric. It is one of the hallmarks of Senegalese culture, yet its roots are European and Asian. Hundreds of millions of dollars are pumped into other ecosystems to bring the trademark fabric to the masses in Africa. The textile was originally imported into Africa from the Dutch Each Indies, now Indonesia, in the 19th Century. Europeans, aimed at being competitive, were creating their own machine-made and washable versions of the fabric to try and flood the Indonesian market with less expensive products. 

While the fabric didn’t take off in the Indonesian market as expected, it instead caught on like wildfire in West Africa. It was adopted, made mainstream and continues to be a symbol of the continent, specifically West African countries. The term “African print” was created by the largest manufacturers to deceive Africans into purchasing what they believed was authentically African. It is now used to “include wax print fabrics of African-based printing firms, European-owned printing firms and or African-based European-owned printing firms (source).” 

While I have found a manufacturer that creates wax print in the continent of Africa, I've reduced inventory. I want to make sure everything we do is truly African, not just in name. It's important that Africans are able to create things consumed by other Africans and that we export authentic African goods for the rest of the world. As we grow, we will keep Expedition Subsahara products as pure as possible. If a fabric is faux-African, we won’t use it, because we believe in transparency, cultural significance and authenticity.