The History of Dutch Wax


Our Rwandan pieces are created from 100% cotton fabric commonly called “Dutch Wax”.  This term is due to the nature of the printing, which uses wax resins and dyes so that they have a batik-like effect on both sides of the fabric. The method is called wax-resist dying because the wax ‘resists’ the dye from penetrating the entire cloth, which is how patterns are made.  

Dutch Wax African Fabric

The Dutch prefix is because African prints didn’t originate in Africa. It actually didn’t originate in Holland, either. The technique itself, batik, originated in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. Batik uses an etching tool called a canting that holds a small amount of hot, liquid wax that allows for intricate patterns to be made on cloth.  It is a painstakingly detailed process that takes great lengths to perform. 

The colonial era of Europeans in Indonesia made its biggest impact in the 18th and 19th centuries. Batik was originally popular with Christian missionaries who used it for clothing converts.  At the same time, the Dutch found a fancy with the intricate detailing of this printed cloth too.  So much so that they took it back to Holland, used a new machinery to automate the dying process, and began to mass-produce it. 

Dutch Wax African Fabric on a Sewing Machine

There are many theories as to how Africa adopted this fabric as their signature fabric. Some say, the Western African soldiers brought back beautiful Javanese fabrics to their wives after serving in the military in the Dutch East Indies between 1810 and 1862 creating a demand for the product.  Others indicate that the strategic geography of Africa between the European mills and origin of the Indonesian technique created a natural path for trade boats to make stops along the way to sell their wares created the popularity.  Other historical accounts claim that the machine-made version of the new Dutch wax developed a crackling effect where the resin cracked and dye seeped through that didn’t appeal to Indonesian market. In need of a new market for the textiles, the Dutch turned to West Africa.

Nonetheless, when popularity in West Africa took hold, the patterns and colors of the Dutch Wax took on the preferences of that market as well.  Bolder, brighter colors started appearing in the print.  New patterns were designed to reflect significant events and local proverbs in the culture. And the patterns remain to be significantly indicative of the West African lifestyle.

African Dutch Wax

Dutch Wax fashions are still worn as traditional attire for special events in Western Africa. Having the latest designs, and wearing carefully chosen, meaningful patterns, can even communicate social status in some communities. Wax prints are also used as courting gifts and are usually included in a woman’s dowry.  

Needless to say, we wanted to carry this rich lesson of history over to the U.S. This is another opportunity for us to use fashion as a catalyst for education and cultural exchange. While many people tend to think of fashion as something as merely superficial, we don’t. There’s history and storytelling and heritage in this industry and it is significant. From the prints to the people who hand sew our Ibanze Collection, we celebrate this beautiful country and its craftsmanship.  

June 08, 2017 by Jaclyn Dowdle