Author: Lila Stone

In celebration of the third annual New York Textile Month, members of the Textile Society of America will author Object of the Day for the month of September. A non-profit professional organization of scholars, educators, and artists in the field of textiles, TSA provides an international forum for the exchange and dissemination of information about textiles worldwide.

The textile manufacturing firm Vlisco Group was founded in 1846 in the Netherlands. Vlisco designs, produces, and distributes their batik-inspired wax prints to the West and Central African markets, as well as to Africans living in global consumer cities. The company’s signature wax-resist printed cottons were originally created for the Javanese market, but the attempt to introduce a machine-made version of hand-drawn batik failed. The fabrics were later introduced to the African market, where consumers were attracted to the bold, brightly colored and elaborately patterned prints.

Vlisco designs are a product of a unique collaboration between the Dutch designers and open-air markets sellers in East and Central African markets, primarily women, who suggest patterns and colors. The bolts of fabric are bought and sold primarily in open-air markets and it is popular for consumers to mix and match the prints and then bring the fabric to a tailor to fashion into a unique garment; a dress for the first day of work or a wedding gown. The consistently high quality of the printed fabric is attractive to the African consumer and remains one of the crucial selling points for new and returning customers, although cheaply printed knock-offs are widely available.

The titles are not assigned by the company, but rather are informal titles given by the sellers, and often reference topical events or local proverbs. A print with purses came to be known as “Michelle Obama’s Handbag”; another is called “Kofi Annan’s Brain.” The title Tu sors, je sors translates from French as You go, I go, or You leave, I leave. The design depicts two birds flying out of an opened cage, which is said to suggest “if you think this marriage is something you can take and leave as you please, I will do the same.”

Contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare uses Vlisco fabrics boldly in his work, often headless or anonymous manikins wearing garments in historic styles made from Vlisco fabrics, to comment on the complexities of the post-colonial global trading market.

Lila Stone works as a Task Representative for the Textile Society of America and a Project Coordinator at The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia.

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