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DC Intersections

Tradition in every stitch, Africa in every outfit


Photograph by Karina Stenquist

Amy David gets a head wrap made at House of Laces in Langley Park, Md.

House of Laces sells colorful fabrics that reflect the history of global trade

| By Karina Stenquist |

Every square inch of wall in the store is draped in color. Six-yard rainbow swathes are folded and stacked by the door, hung from overhead rails, piled on shelves. Sequins and pearls glint on velvet and voile. Bright hues and gold highlights battle for attention. Bolts of beaded lace drip down the counter side next to cotton waterfalls. In the House of Laces, an African fabric store, culture is wearable.

It’s no accident that this store is where it is, in unassuming Langley Park, Md.Yet the merchandise it sells reflects an accident of world history. While the surge in African immigration  to Washington, D.C., may be a recent result of globalization, the unexpected origins of the fabrics themselves are a reminder that the global economy has centuries-old roots.

Joy Porter, one of House of Laces’ proprietors, came to the area 24 years ago from Nigeria. Her customers, she says, are mainly from her home country, as well as other West African nations and Cameroon.

With a clientele from those regions, Langley Park is a good place to be. As of 2005, the U.S. Census bureau reported more than 114,000 black African immigrants in the greater D.C: area, including southern Maryland.  They comprise about 11 percent  of the overall foreign-born population – a greater proportion than any other major metropolitan area in the country.

Though Ethiopians are the most numerous,  as the D.C. restaurant scene might suggest, next come the West Africans, especially from Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone as well as Cameroonians.

Of the West Africans, Nigerians are particularly well represented in Maryland. Nearly half the approximately 54,000 West Africans in Maryland are Nigerian, according to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey estimates.

When 2010 Census data is released, some community members predict Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties in Maryland may comprise the largest Nigerian immigrant community in the United States. It will be at least in the top three, along with New York and Houston.

For Porter, that means a thriving customer base of immigrants for whom looking their best means wearing traditional clothes, handmade from the fabrics of their homeland.

“I like to see people beautiful: when they look good, when they look their best,” Porter says, explaining that it’s her favorite part of the business. Porter says that she took after her mother by getting into the business and that it’s what she’s always done.

Customers come to the House of Laces to get their wedding clothes, their party dresses and, especially, their Sunday best. “Anything big-time,” says Porter.

The fabrics she calls “big-time” fall into two general categories – prints and laces. Each has a long and rich history influenced by colonialization, the birth of global trade, and the evolution of textile art.

Black Dutchman and batik accidents
The prints are more what many Americans may think of as “typically African,” with bright colors and bold designs They make almost any cotton print in the average “American” closet seem hopelessly tame in comparison. The more traditional prints have a slightly irregular nature, while the modern ones are sleeker and sharper in their outlines.

And where do these typically African fabrics come from? “Usually Holland,” says Porter. And with that, she cracks opens the door of the strange history of African wax print cloth.

Like so many stories of historical accident, this one begins with war. Specifically, a war the Dutch colonial powers were waging against their subjects in Indonesia. The militarily over-committed colonialists found themselves short-handed. The logical solution of course was to hire and ship over 3,000 Ghanaian soldiers to help them out. The Ghanaians became known as the Belanda Hitam, or Black Dutchmen in Malay, and many of their descendants remain in Java.

Meanwhile, the colonialists, via the Dutch East India Company, were keenly interested in trade. They took a fancy to Indonesian batik and attempted to industrially produce it back home by machine rolling hot wax onto fabric then dipping it in dyes coloring everything but the waxy bits. They didn’t do so well, and the colors would bleed, so the Indonesians passed on it.

Legend has it that the Ghanaians, having become enamored of batik as well, ended up bringing some of the “imperfect” Dutch batik home to their wives and sisters. And the Africans, unlike the Indonesians, liked the irregular “crackling effect” on the Dutch fabrics produced when the wax cracked and let the colors run. Once the Dutch, and then the English, discovered their potential market in West Africa, they cornered it. And that’s why the biggest name in African wax prints is still a Dutch company called Vlisco.

Though not everyone agrees this is exactly how it happened, it’s a likely enough story, says Magie Relph, a U.K. collector, purveyor and author specializing in African fabrics.

“Textiles are very important in West Africa,” Relph says, “Especially if it was for a dowry. Certainly to me, that’s not surprising at all.”

“West Africa is just like the rest of the world: if it costs a lot of money and it feels good, it must be good,” Relph says, explaining the Dutch company’s ability to stay at the top of the industry using keen marketing and positioning themselves as a high-end product.

A lucky layover for lace-makers
As for the House of Laces’ eponymous product, these aren’t your grandma’s white doilies. This is lace with adose of attitude.  The laces come in any color imaginable – sometimes two or three – with a patterned overlayer that may be geometric or floral, bold or delicate, plain or adorned with sequins or beads.

Though either print cloth or lace can be used to make formal clothes, the laces are without a doubt the more formal, and are preferred for weddings and the most important events. They are worn by women and men. True to the African-fabric industry’s wide network, Porter says many of her laces come from Switzerland.

The history of African laces is more recent than that of prints, and considerably more peaceful.  The story is often told like this: In the 1960s an Austrian businessman had a layover in Lagos, Nigeria. Noticing the bright embroidered clothing the women wore, he thought he knew some lace-makers back home who might find a good market there. And they did. Nigeria is still the country that uses the most laces, and they are often of Swiss or Austrian origin. In fact the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna is running an exhibition through February 2011 on the art of Austrian-African laces.

Traditional and tailor-made
Back in Langley Park, Porter says her African customers’ preferences mirror age-specific trends back home. Her clientele ranges from twenty-somethings to senior citizens, and their outfits of choice vary from a loose-fitting “wrapper”, with minimal tailoring, or a more form-fitting style.

Porter is unconcerned about a potential shift to off-the-rack options and away from custom tailoring. “People’s taste is very different; that’s not possible.”

Indeed, individual expression goes to the very heart of African fabrics, often considered the essential African art form. The patterns, designs and colors can often say more about the wearer than just aesthetic taste. Depending on the region, the design may have significance as to the event being celebrated, or the ethnic group or tribe the wearer belongs to.

For Chichi Anyanwu, who is getting fitted at House of Laces for her new church outfit, this is certainly the case. She says the colors are significant in her congregation, and that the purple and gold of her lace outfit “are what you have in heaven.” They are a symbol of the divine for her.
Jane Jackson, another customer and a native of Sierra Leone, affirms fashion’s enduring cultural importance. “People are very aware of their customs,” She says.

In weddings, she explains, it’s very typical that the bride’s and groom’s guests dress in separate color schemes, usually chosen by the mothers on either side, almost like teams on a playing field.

Jackson isn’t sure the very young, who are growing up in the States, are so keen on African-style clothing: “All they want is American.”

Her 10-year-old daughter seems to be going the way of assimilation, she says. “My aunt made clothes for her. When she was 5, she would wear them. When she was 10, she wouldn’t wear them.”

For Porter, however, it seems the fashion gene runs in the family. Her 21-year-old daughter runs a vintage clothing business. As for taking over her role in the fabric business, she says it’s more likely to be her son who does so, though he’s still only 8 years old.

“He likes to help in the store,” she says, with a quiet smile.

And Porter is more optimistic about the younger clientele. Though they may not wear  the kinds of clothes she sells every day, “when they’re getting married, definitely, they have to.”    These fashions – and the history they embody – will not die any time soon, Porter says, “It’s in the blood.”