African wax cloth is storied, and it transmits rich, intoxicating, playful, and insouciant truths about African lives that become entangled with the story of its wearer. It is known by different names depending on the region: Ankara in Nigeria, kitenge among Swahili speakers in Kenya and Tanzania, wax prints for the global market, and in Ghana, it is referred to as cloth, distinct from a mere fabric. The name "cloth" signifies its social and material value, similar to prestigious woven items like kente. Additionally, it is known as Holland, referring to its origins. Originally produced in the 1800s in Helmond, Dutch factories attempted to industrialize Indonesian batiks for Asian markets. Failing to penetrate the intended market, the Dutch discovered a robust market when they stopped in modern Ghana on their return journey.
As the market expanded along the West African coast, African-inspired motifs were incorporated, colorways were developed, and women, primarily, who wore and traded them assigned social meanings and names. Thus, wax cloth became an integral part of ceremonial life and extended its heritage beyond its Dutch factory origins.
What about the issue of cultural appropriation?
People often express love for Ankara alongside caution that for non-African and diaspora wearers, it is an act of appropriation. It is important to separate what corporations do—in wholesale lifting of design ways and repackaging them for huge profits, without regard to origins or intellectual heritage—from the meaning of purchasing a dress or other garment that has likely benefited African and/or African-American makers and traders. Their relationship to their work is personal and not indifferent to its buyer or the process by which it was manufactured.
Wax cloth has rightfully taken its place in the global economy, alongside other beloved fashion. OULA is a black-owned company with an owner who has family roots in Florida and Sierra Leone. OULA sources ethically from partners in India, following the tradition of this cloth and its global roots—a deep-rooted cultural exchange between the Asian, European, and African worlds.
What is the meaning of wax cloth for African Americans and other people in the African Diaspora?
Wax cloth has long been a beautiful and potent symbol of connection to Africa and an African heritage. African-Americans have worn it ceremonially—in religious and cultural events—and used it in home decor as well as a symbol in political life and cultural events for decades. It has served as inspiration and appears in the work of many important artists, and its symbols are often seen in architecture and increasingly in popular culture. Today, it is a mark of a modern passport—a cosmopolitan symbol of belonging to a global African culture that is increasingly at the forefront. When worn by others, it symbolizes sophistication and an awareness of their participation in this world as an esthete.
What is the weight and feel of the fabric?
All wax is not created equally. True wax cloth, which undergoes up to a 23-stage process of fabrication, has become rare. It has been supplanted in the market by cheaper and less labor-intensive copies that lack any wax process, with the designs machine-stamped on one face of the cloth instead of a double-sided batik process.
Most OULA wax fabrics, however, are made with the age-old wax process on high-quality 100% cotton. Imagine a medium to heavyweight cotton men's shirt with the smooth, barely detectable finishing of a dip in wax. This gives it a beautiful body, similar to starching, and a subtle sheen that it is prized for. While the wax coating slowly wears away, you will continue to have a soft and crisp, breathable garment.
How do I care for my OULA wax cloth garments?
For over a century and a half, wax cloth has been treasured and stored much like a family heirloom. OULA garments are made from the highest quality wax cloth and will enjoy a long life, maintaining their shape and saturated colors. Dry cleaning is recommended, but your OULA clothing can also be hand or machine washed in a gentle cycle with mild soap and lukewarm or cold water. After washing, hang dry the garments and iron as needed.