These handpainted batiks are very special. They're created by Neneh Jallow, one of the most talented batik artists in The Gambia.
Neneh paints each piece with up to five layers of wax, one for each subtle variation in colour, before dyeing and over dyeing in a progression of dye vats.
All fabrics are 100% cotton in a subtle damask weave.
Fabrics are 120 cm / 48 in wide, approximately.
The unit for ordering these fabrics is a half metre measured along the selvedge. 1 half metre = 19 inches, approximately.
Many people - including us - consider Neneh Jallow the best batik artist in The Gambia. We first discovered Neneh's fantastic fabrics in 2001 and we've been working with her ever since.
Around Neneh's compound in the village of Lamin, painting batik fabrics is a family affair. Alongside Neneh, the buzz of creative activity includes her husband Modou and several apprentices drawn from her extended family.
The batik process in Africa - as elsewhere in the world, notably Java - is simple in theory.
Wax + dye = batik. Applying wax to fabric creates a resist which dye cannot penetrate. Where there is wax, the fabric stays the colour it was before going into the dye vat. Where there is no wax, the dye colours the fabric.
This is where it gets complicated.
Each separate colour and each separate design motif of the batiked fabric requires it's own separately applied layer of wax.
Neneh starts with a length of plain, undyed cotton damask fabric, usually about 4 metres long. The process for each and every layer goes like this.
For more complicated designs, she sketches a general layout onto the fabric with pencil.
Meanwhile, a pot of wax is melting in a pot over the fire. When the wax is ready, Neneh uses a brush to apply molten wax to the fabric - literally painting wax to create her first layer of design.
Once the wax hardens, Neneh dips her fabric into the first layer of dye, usually the lightest colour.
She dries the fabric in the sun before moving on to the next layer and the next colour.
Returning to her wax pot, Neneh paints the fabric with another layer of wax, creating another layer of design on top of the first one. Then, she overdyes her fabric in the second colour.
And so it goes: waxing, dyeing and drying - layer after layer - for up to five layers.
Once the fabric has been completely waxed and dyed, Neneh has to get rid of all that wax. She dips the waxed fabric into a vat of very hot water and swirls it around. The hot water melts the wax, which goes into solution in the water - more about that coming up. Then, she dips the fabric quickly and repeatedly into a vat of cold water, before hanging the now finished fabric to dry.
Finally, she fills and old fashioned iron with hot coals and presses her fabric ready for market - or for the African Fabric Shop.
As you can imagine, all of this takes a lot of time and patience, which is what handpainted batik is all about.
Batik making is an expensive business. Aside from the cloth and dyes, Neneh uses a lot fire wood and a lot of wax. She works hard to recycle as much wax as possible by boiling and cooling her rinse water to salvage what wax she can and also by scraping excess wax off of her work tables. Every little bit helps her save money.
For a few of her more simple designs, Neneh can save time by applying her wax through a stencil cut from old x-ray film. But the majority of designs are too complicated for that, so she paints every line freehand using a paintbrush.
One feature of Neneh's handpainted batiks that really sets them apart is the splatter effect. Neneh dips a broad brush or whisk broom into her wax, then holding the brush above the fabric she snaps her wrist, splattering the fabric with tiny droplets of wax - kind of like wax rain. Absolutely stunning!
Neneh's batiks are all high quality, 100% damask weave cotton.
The fabrics drape beautifully, making them perfect for tailoring and dressmaking. They're also great for table cloths, napkins, curtains and other furnishing applications.
Many of our customers use them for patchwork and quilting.