Tessuti Kate Top and Named Alexandria Peg Pants
Well 2017 is well upon us, and if the two-piece set is no longer a thing this year, no one bothered to tell me (not that I suspect I’d listen). Because I’ve made another one – this time a ‘pant set’. Just those words make me happy: Pant. Set. I could say them all day.
I made this outfit for an upcoming family wedding – taking a leaf out of my friend Kimberley’s book and figuring it would be fun and fresh to wear a brightly coloured matching set to a wedding. As I often lament, I’m not exactly a trailblazer when it comes to wearing brights – especially prints. So in order to stretch my crazy print catalogue a little further than, say, spotted chambray, I set myself a challenge: make a wedding outfit using an African wax print. Anyone familiar with African wax prints (also known as Dutch wax print, Ankara, Real English Wax, Veritable Java Print, Guaranteed Dutch Java and Vlisco) will know there’s just no way to be subtle in these fabrics. They are outrageously, gloriously, unstoppably big, bright and busy. There’s nowhere to hide when you’re covered from head to toe in Ankara. Except, well look at me here – I think I’ve done the impossible. Because when I got online and started searching for fabric to buy, I just kept on looking until I found on eBay what’s possibly the quietest, most monotone wax print ever produced. Of course, it was instant heart eyes. Sold.
I have a confession to make here, and it’s quite embarrassing. I always thought African wax prints were actually coated in a layer of wax. Like a fine japara or raincoat fabric. And I’m even more embarrassed to say that when my cloth arrived, all gorgeous and sheeny, polished cotton with lots of drape, I just assumed that fabled layer of wax was very, very light. Isn’t it amazing I told people. So drapey for a WAX PRINT. It wasn’t until I came to write this story and decided it would be good to know which of the 54 countries in Africa these fabrics come from (reminds me of this very funny insta post from Lupita Nyong’o – Africa is not a country y’all) that I learned not only are these wax fabrics not coated in wax (the wax is used in the dying process), they don’t even originate from Africa. WHAT?!
It seems the jury’s still out on some aspects of the history of this fabric, but the general consensus seems to be: Dutch and English colonialists ‘took’ the method of wax resist dying from Indonesian batik traditions in the 1800s and set up factories in Europe to produce similar, cheaper cloth. The Dutch-made fabrics didn’t sell so well in Indonesia (funny that), but became popular in ports along the West African coast, in countries including Ghana. European wax print designers started creating ‘African’ patterns to suit this new market, and over time adopted motifs and popular cultural images including community leaders and even household products on the cloths. By the 1950s some of the production of wax print cloth had moved to Africa itself, and today the European and African-produced cloths are facing stiff competition from cheaper Chinese versions of ‘African’ wax print.
If the whole story isn’t a complete clusterf*** of colonial entitlement, cultural appropriation and globalisation I don’t know what is. Clearly it’s complicated, but the fabrics are amazing and very much ‘owned’ by a number of African countries today. I totally apologise if I’ve got any of the background wrong – for much better wax print history, detail and insights into the way West Africans use the fabrics to communicate, try this story on Slate, this one on Mazuri Designs and this post by Eccentric Yoruba. Or check out Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, whose work explores the history and meaning of these prints.
To make my subtle, non-waxy, not-quite-completely-African fabric into a two-piece, I decided simple might be best. For the top I chose the Tessuti Kate singlet, which I’ve made before, because I love its boxy shape and slightly high neckline. My pants are the Named Alexandria Peg Trousers, a pattern I’ve admired so many times on others, but have never attempted before. It’s been a while between pants projects for me, so these were a great way to get into trouser-making as they’re super easy: elastic waisted and very well drafted. I didn’t need to make any big adjustments to the pattern, I added a couple of inches to the legs as I wanted full length, added two rows of elastic at the ankles (and I wonder why my small kid refers to them as ‘fancy trackies’), and left off the waist tie.
So would you believe it – the summer wedding has been postponed until late autumn, and once again I’m left doing supermarket runs and pub dinners in my fancy outift. But wearing this two-piece around has made me feel braver about vaguely busy prints, and I’m almost ready to try a ‘proper’ loud African wax print. At least I’ll know where it comes from next time!