I was recently gifted with one of my great grandmother’s outfits. It’s a beautiful velvet, floral strapless top and a matching head scarf from the 40s or 50s. My great grandmother’s vintage African wax print is classic and beautiful. Until now, I had never seen a velvet ‘Kaba and slit‘. I struggled to figure out what to do with the vintage fabric, until I finally decided to take it to a designer and have it fashioned into something special. I’ll honor her by wearing it.
I know plenty of women who inherit ‘ntoma’. Fabric is so important to our cultures—they’re family heirlooms, really. The silent stories within African wax prints, are passed from generation to generation, collectively narrating our history; stories of events, people, places, and sagacity of those who came before us. All these things, conveyed through symbols, patterns, and designs, embossed on fabric.
How to identify vintage African wax print
African wax print fabric originated from the Dutch-colonized East Indies (now Indonesia). The Dutch recruited West African men, as slaves and mercenaries, to fight in Indonesia. The Dutch modified the local Indonesian batik printing methods to make colorful clothes with wax. In the 19th century, the West African men who managed to escape slavery and war, brought wax prints back with them, which has now become synonymous with West African culture.
the According to my grandmother, a vintage print is authenticated by its name, color, its heft, the kind of material, and evidence of wear.
What’s in a name?
Usually, old African wax prints fabric that people save for future generations have a name because it was either a very popular fabric at the time or it signified something important at some point in history; probably worn when someone died, was born, or elected into political office (i.e. ‘Nkrumah Pencil’). Other fabrics are kept because its symbols and design communicate a cherished proverbial message.
In Ghana, some popular cloths with proverbial messages include ‘Sika wo ntaban‘(money has wings), ‘Su wo bra’ (focus on your life, or, mind your business), ‘Ahwene pa nkasa‘ (beautiful beads aren’t garishly loud), ‘Suro nipa‘ (fear human beings), or ‘me ba wo abrokyire‘ (my child is abroad [implicating prestige and wealth]).
Women in Ghana use cloths to convey their piece of mind, such as Ghana’s ‘Enibre Nso Gya’ (No matter how red with anger your eyes may be, they [you] can’t light a fire), ‘Akyekyere ekyir’ (symbolizing beauty and resilience of the tortoise’s shell), ‘Awhene Pa Nkasa’ (precious beads are silent) or ‘Suro Nipa’ (fear human beings).
You can see how wearing one of these ‘coded’ fabrics in the presence of your rival (think competitive wives within a polygamous family) might get you in a fight; it says everything you’d like to be said without uttering a word.
That’s right, sass is in our DNA.
When a design earns its seat in the wax-print-hall-of-fame, subsequent generations occasionally bring it out of retirement by putting a colorful spin on it. So, you’ll have a popular cloth like ‘Awhene Pa Nkasa’ remade in hot pink or canary yellow, for instance…very different from the vintage edition that sits on the bottom grandma’s camphor-treated trunk.
Worth its weight in gold
The cloths from back in the day, feel durable to touch. Vintage material is usually heavier than the modern, lightweight fabrics Auntie Akos hawks in the church parking lot on Sundays. As my grandmother said in Fante over the phone, “when you feel it you will know.”
No manmade materials please
The vintage fabric I inherited from my great-grandmother, Janet, is velvet. Velvet, y’all! How luxurious is that? My grandmother explains that vintage cloth from back in the day came in pretty silks, velvets, and heavy cottons. All natural materials that hold up with time if taken care of well. Nowadays, even reputable kente weavers use rayon and other synthetics, sprinkled with the occasional silk thread, for the export market.
Evidence of wear
Your favorite octogenarian probably has old prints lined with durable cotton, maybe stiffened, lining. Most likely this lining is yellowing in some parts from sweat and ‘pancake’ [makeup] stains. Most likely, her vintage clothing is soft from wash and wear. These are all evidence of wear…evidence that her clothes were worn and cherished and adored.
Taking care of and cherishing pieces of history that’s been passed down to us from loved ones is a practice that some do better than others. I haven’t always been this nostalgic about old clothing, but as I’ve gotten older and become enthralled with my history as an African woman, my heart is as soft as my grandmother’s cloth.
Fancy rings and precious stones aren’t the only things worthy of passing down. Anything can be a cherished heirloom from the past.
[ Images of fabrics source]
Let’s cherish and make sacred our histories; items that shape us as Africans—be they gold, jewelry, precious porcelain tea cups, or vintage wax print fabric.
Anything you’d like to add about spotting vintage african wax print fabric? Come across any interesting vintage fabric lately?