A while back I spent the weekend in Cape Coast, a beautiful 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 a 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.
THE HISTORY OF BATIK FABRICS
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. There are also a lot of links to Indonesian batik techniques and its thought that these also influenced the batik styles that have developed in Ghana.
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.
PRINTING BATIK FABRIC
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 time and pressed a lot harder to make just one print. Children kept popping their heads in to see what was happening. 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!
DYING THE BATIK FABRIC
The next stage of the process was carried out by Mary. She took some blue and green powdered dyes 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, hand-washed 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 love to create a few limited edition batik designs for Ashanti Empress each year because of their place in West African tradition and their handmade, original qualities.
Because we love batik fabrics so much we also scour the markets in Accra for some of our favourite batik and tie dye designs which are available to buy by the yard for your own sewing projects. You can find them here.