Stepping off the plane in Ghana, one is swept into a whirlwind of color. Accra is a tremendous cultural hub, and wax printed textiles are at the center of it. No matter which direction you look, the view will be a kaleidoscope of vibrant patterns, each unique in its own way.
Working as a fashion design intern for Global Mamas in Cape Coast, I have had a special introduction to the textiles of West Africa. Global Mamas is a fair trade company that seeks to transform the lives of Ghanaian women through empowerment. It fosters the opportunity for sustainable incomes for women through the creation of high-quality, one-of-a kind products. These consist of handmade apparel, accessories, home décor, jewelry, and skin care products. Global Mamas works with nearly 600 women, and most of the seamstresses and batikers run their own businesses, and are thus able to provide for their families, send their children to school, improve their standards of living, and save for the future.
As an apparel design intern, I came up with new garment designs and product ideas, sourced the market for different and better fabrics and findings, and developed new batik stamps. I worked one-on-one with the batiker through the production process. I was there to learn and assist in the long, labor intensive process that goes into hand stamping and dyeing hundreds of yards of fabric each week.
The batikers operate in small shacks scattered throughout Cape Coast. Batiking is a delicate art form that begins with melting wax in a large kettle. Next, the stamps are cut out and prepared by soaking up enough wax to print successfully without excess crackle. This is followed by the precarious task of stamping the cotton fabric. Accidentally dripping wax on the fabric is an irreversible mistake, and can cause the fabric to be unsuitable for export production. Since the amount of light outside affects the pigment of the final product, batikers are only able to dye the fabric on sunny days – further complicating the process.
Batikers also face obstacles outside of the workshop. Costs are high and materials are limited. Since batik involves layering colors over each other, hand-printed batik is limited in what colors can be printed together and restricted to a maximum of three colors to avoid the prints becoming muddy with color mixing. This creates a challenge for the batikers in the bustling local markets where they are up against complex and exquisite factory-made wax prints from companies like Vlisco, which is imported from Holland, or the cheaper knock-offs imported from China. The rich colors and diverse prints of Vlisco set them apart and make their fabric the most prestigious to wear in West Africa, diminishing the amount of local interest in the hand-printed traditions.
Yet, even with the competition of factory-made wax print, Ghana is the breeding ground of some of the world’s most splendid hand-printed textiles. Through supporting Fair Trade companies like Global Mamas, we can help to strengthen and preserve these traditional printing and dyeing methods, as well as enable the artisans to carve a path of prosperity for their children to follow in the future.
For more information about Global Mamas, please visit www.globalmamas.org.