Friday, August 29, 2008

West African Colors

Sometimes in my neighborhood, standing in clusters by the street, waiting for the subway train, or sitting in the laundromat, I see women wearing brightly colorful dresses consisting of a flouncy but tailored top and a long skirt, both made of the same wildly patterned fabric. Sometimes they even have a head-wrap that matches. The cloth is cotton unlike anything they sell at JoAnn's or even Mood. Sometimes the patterns have a recognizable shape--I saw one with hens and chicks all over it once! The one below is derived from the form of electric shavers!

But usually the fabric is just a boldly repeating pattern of geometric shapes. It's gotten to the point where I'm constantly on the lookout for these fabrics, and I'm elated whenever I spy a woman wearing a dress of this unusual cotton. I try not to stare, but the fabric mesmerizes me. So I decided to research it, and I found out that this cloth is called African wax print cotton, and it was originally made in the Netherlands for the African markets, to compete with Indonesian batiks. Some of the fabric resembles the waviness of batik, but in a stylized way. It has a deep tradition in Africa, and has been associated with political and social movements. In fact, I actually own a small piece of wax print fabric with the image of a baby over a basketweave background, with a warning in French about the need for vaccination. I've had this piece of fabric for years, not knowing what it is, but just loving the graphics of it.

It's mainly in West Africa that these fabrics became popular, so I guess the women I'm seeing are from countries like Ghana, who are reluctant to give up their glorious way of dressing in exchange for a drab-by-comparison American mode. I want to join them and wear one of those dresses! In fact I freely confess to staying up too late at night poring over the websites of Chinese fabric importers, trying to figure out how I can buy some of this beautiful fabric.

So I was delighted today to discover an African fabric store in my neighborhood! I mean, it makes sense, but the way things are in New York these days, I didn't know. Every time I passed this store I thought it was probably just African-looking stuff made in China to sell to tourists. I went inside and thought I was dreaming. Floor to ceiling bolts of brightly colored patterned African fabric met my eyes. Racks of those West African dresses were there before me. They are not cheap, either! But they are gorgeous. I think they are handmade. The man was busy, so I couldn't ask him how much the bolts of fabric were, but I'm definitely going back when I have more time to spend.


tkangaroo said...

If you are back in Carolina, you can also find some fabric in Pittsboro. Just as you are getting into town (from Chapel Hill) there is a fabulous French/African store on the left that has fabulous racks and racks of gorgeous fabrics as well as a bunch of African merchandise. Check it out next time you visit--I always find something I covet.

Anonymous said...

I am an artist as well and spent some time in Africa. I am heading to New York this week and would love to check out this fabric shop you speak of. Where is it located?

Lady Holiday said...

It's on 125th Street--I can't remember the name of it, but it's near the intersection of Lenox Avenue. And they sell not just fabric but chairs, clothes, and jewelry.