Beautiful Batiks

Last week Emily and I spent the weekend in Cape Coast, a beautiful yet slightly dilapidated coastal town in Ghana’s central region. Cape Coast is very significant historically for its role during colonial times and also during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, when thousands upon thousands of people from West Africa were captured from their homes and brought, by foot, often hundreds of miles to Cape Coast Castle. It is here they were held in horrific underground dungeons before they passed through ‘The Door of No Return’ as boats set sail for The Americas filled with their human cargo.

Today Cape Coast is a sleepy fishing town with its shores lined by colourful fishing boats though the castle still looms, a whitewashed fortress on the horizon. The streets are relaxed, highlife music blasts from every street corner and people saunter along, never in a hurry.

On Saturday morning, after a heavy night at ‘West Africa’s first ever FOAM PARTY’, which was undeniably an overexcited affair, we walked along the sea front to the castle where we were due to meet Mary, who was going to teach us how to make batik fabric. We were late and she was later, discovering us, head in hands sat on the wall outside the castle trying to escape the beaming rays of the midday sun and our oncoming hangovers. We walked with Mary through the quiet Saturday streets to her house. Here, in a sandy courtyard surrounded by little rooms was a small shelter made from clapboards nailed onto a simple structure. This was where the magic happens, the workshop.

Mary has been making batik fabric for over 10 years after studying it in college. She now works for an organisation called Global Mama’ s, making fabric and providing workshops to tourists! Batik is older than history, with traces even laced in the wrappings of Egyptian mummies. It is thought to have been brought to West Africa in the mid nineteenth century by indentured soldiers who had been fighting for the Dutch in Europe. The colourful prints must have caught the attention of their friends and relatives as batik and wax print fabrics are now often thought of synonymously with Africa. For many men and women, the patterns are a form of expression and even communication, announcing everything from their marital status and mood, to their political and religious beliefs. The batik industry in Ghana is dominated by women but there are specific roles which men more often carry out such as dying and stamp carving.

The design of my fabric began with me searching for stamps that took my fancy. I fumbled around the dusty shelves that were stacked high with hand carved wooden stamps and less intricate stamps made from large sponges until I narrowed down my selection to only four or five designs. All the while the large pot of wax needed for the batik was sat on a small fire in the middle of the shack slowly melting. A lot of the batik designs in Ghana feature Adinkra symbols. These originally were designed by the Ashanti people and are visual representations of proverbs, holding evocative messages that convey traditional wisdom, aspects of life or the environment. It is also common for schools or businesses to have their own stamp carved with their logo which can then be printed onto the fabric of pupils or staff uniforms.

Once the wax had melted I spread out my two yards of pure white cotton on the padded workbench and Mary began to show me how to make the stamps onto the fabric. The sponge stamps absorb a lot more wax when dipped so I was able to stamp four or five times before dipping again. The carved wooden ones however must be dipped in the wax every timeand pressed a lot harder to make just one print. Children kept popping their heads in to see what was happening; they were obviously amazed by my skills. After a good twenty minutes of sweating over my waxy fabric I had created something that vaguely represented a ‘design’ though I still think that I should have gone a little more minimalistic and not gone so over board with my numerous stamp choices! Repetition is the key to a good batik design, less is more and all that!

The next stage of the process was carried out by Mary. She took some blue and green powdered dies which she mixed together with hydrochloride and soda ash before dipping the waxy cloth into the mixture. This dying process requires an amazing amount of colour science to achieve the desired colour affect. After a few minutes Mary removed the cloth, wrung it and hung it out in the sunny courtyard to oxidise. The result of this, especially with Emily’s yellow cloth was amazing. Her cloth looked nearly black when it was removed from the die mixture but through the process of oxidisation, in the space of 10 minutes whilst hanging outside we saw the colour magically change from black to bright yellow!

The final stage of the process was to boil the fabric in hot water to remove the wax which had left our stamped designs free from the die. There was a large silver cauldron bubbling in the corner of the room and the cloths were added to this and stirred with a giant wooden spoon to ensure all of the wax was melted off. This wax then floats to the top of the water and Mary is able to scoop it off, cool it and reuse it numerous times for other designs. We took our batiks, handwashed them in buckets of cold water and then hung them out to be admired (mainly by us)!

Batik fabrics can be really beautiful, with multiple layers of wax added to enable numerous colours and textures within a design that is evidently created by hand. There are blemishes to the designs, they are not uniform in their appearance and this is a quality I really admire within the fabric, no two pieces are exactly the same. Although they are generally more subtle compared to wax print fabrics I hope to include numerous batik designs in Ashanti Empress clothing because of their place in West African tradition and their handmade, original qualities. This originality however is a blessing and a curse, I am finding it difficult to source even 24 yards of the same one fabric which would allow me to make a few sizes in each design. I have been given a range of contacts and places to go through conversations with batik traders and manufacturers but so far have not had much luck! Next week I am planning a ‘business excursion’ to Tema, a port town near the capital which I hear is the home of batik so my fingers are crossed, and yours should be too!

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