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The Creators' Collaborative: Lena King

Learning to love the fabric of my home and heart

I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that for some immigrants belonging is an elusive thing you spend years chasing. It doesn't seem to matter how young you were when you joined a new country, the desire to truly belong somewhere, to be attached, to understand and be understood is unbelievably strong. 

I was just three when I toddled onto these ‘Sceptred Isles’ of Great Britain to join my family in London seeking a more affluent life. My mother had arrived in the country some time before me wearing a gorgeous traditional wrapper from Ghana, a long fitted skirt and peplum top made in African wax print or Ankara. She looked gorgeous I'm sure. But when I saw her again was dressed in the 70s attire of her new culture. She nor I can remember exactly but it was likely a pair of navy polyester flares with a matching polo neck top, an outfit I remember well. 

We were Ghanaians living in North London, England and finding out quickly that not everything about the “Mother Land" was as wonderful as my parents thought. My parents were really keen for my two siblings and me to assimilate, so they stopped speaking our own language -Twi- to us and my dad especially instilled in us a Queen's English, as learned by a Ghanaian! What my parents or I didn't fully realise then was that they were severing our ties to our country of birth, distancing us from our non-English speaking relations. They also did not see that assimilation is not the same as acceptance and belonging. We became aliens both to Ghana and England and carved out a new identity over time as British Ghanaians.

Lena wears our Anna Dress

Growing up, I quickly learned to be embarrassed by everything that marked me out as being African, people would call me that and it was never a compliment. Racism and ignorance was alive and kicking back then in the 70s, and morphed in to something a little more polite in the 80s and 90s. African markers definitely included wax print fabric. My mum had been a seamstress back in Ghana and she often made clothes for herself and her girls. Sometimes she would suggest making me something from some Ankara and I would say “no thanks". I'd be content for my mum or dad to wear their cloth for Ghanaian functions, as long as we travelled by car! 

I was quite a shy girl and preferred not to get noticed. But it's hard to be a wallflower when you're wearing Ankara. The prints and the colours just shout to be seen! My mum would often show me some cloth and I would object to the brightness of the colours or the strange print. It was hard for teenage me to see the cloth becoming something I'd want to wear. Like many a teenager, I struggled to accept and like my body and I felt safer and less seen if I swathed myself in black and navy. But inside me was a latent love of colour and pattern that was waiting to bloom. The odd pair of red Levi's, the geometric mod print cardigan, the oxblood Doc Martens were all paving the way to a bolder, more colourful me. 

Lena wears the Nenuphar Jacket by Deer and Doe

I am so thankful that my mum gave me a sewing machine when I was 15 and never stopped offering me African wax print, it was as if she knew I would turn, and I did. When my eldest was 4, we went to Ghana, that was only the second time I'd been back since coming to the UK. It was a wonderful three weeks of meeting family, feasting and visiting the sights. I loved going to the markets and browsing  through the myriads of gorgeous printed fabric, it was the beginning of a beautiful thing. 

 

My great love now for African wax print is born out of a need to be attached to Ghana, to value it and no longer ashamed of it. I remember the first dress I made for myself from some gorgeous red and yellow fabric was print. I wore it to a wedding and I was the only black guest there. I braced myself for the comments and explanations I’d need to make. The comments came and I found that the interest in the fabric was genuine and I loved talking about it. There was no embarrassment.  On my infrequent visits to Ghana, I always have two very strong and opposing feelings. I feel very much that I am home while at the same time feeling very much like a stranger, in fact I'm often called ‘Abrofo' by Ghanaians, the term used for foreigner. Wearing Ankara fabric helps me feel connected.


Lena wears the Jessica Dress by Mimi G

On my most recent trip to Ghana my mum had a good sort out of her wax print clothes and fabric and my sister and I had a great time choosing what we liked and having them made over for us by my mum's talented dressmaker. It was a beautiful time. Seeing my mum's fabric, old and new and hearing some of the stories behind them was so special. Some of the stories were of the people who  gifted her with the fabric, some of the stories were of the meaning of the design on the cloth. My mum has quite a collection because cloth is often given to people, at weddings, it's part of the traditional ceremony in Some African countries. It's also sometimes just the equivalent of a bottle of wine and a houseplant when you visit someone or want to say thank you.

Lena wears the Claudette palazzo trousers by Dovetailed London

Let me backtrack and tell you a little bit more about this fabric, what is Ankara? Firstly, we are of course not talking about the capital of Turkey! We are talking about colourful, boldly printed cotton fabric, imitating the effect of the process of batik. Perhaps you remember doing batik when you were at school. The process involves making patterns on cloth using melted wax then dying the cloth and finally using heat to remove the wax. The waxing and dying can be repeated to add more colour and design. When the Dutch colonised Indonesia they discovered the wonderful hand printed batik fabric the Indonesians made and their merchants took some samples back to the Netherlands. The Dutch developed ways to mass produce similar fabric, imitating the crackle effect of wax resist fabric. But these new fabrics were not appreciated by the Indonesians or the Europeans. Legend has it that Ghanaian soldiers from the Dutch Gold Coast (today's Ghana) enjoyed the fabric and that's how wax print began to popularise West Africa.   There are many different types of cloth traditionally made in Africa and several countries have incorporated the wax resist method in their designs. What makes Ankara so amazing to me is the vibrancy of the prints, traditionally bold primary colours are used along with green. I love the fact that the wrong side the fabric is just as brilliant as the right side. Another cool thing about Ankara is that the colour doesn't fade, and trust me, I have 50 year old fabric in my collection that looks as  good as new! But be careful, quality matters. The best Ankara will be 100 percent cotton. And although the fabric can feel really stiff when you buy it, due to the fact that it is waxed on the right and wrong side, I have found that the fabric usually softens beautifully with washing. Juliet Uzor says she likes to add a bit of salt with her fabric conditioner when washing waxy Ankara fabric and that helps break down the wax. 

And talking of Juliet, she and I hosted a week of Ankara fabric appreciation last June over on Instagram and it was just the best week! It came in the wake of the George Floyd sadness when so many were feeling low and beleaguered and it was just the celebration we needed to focus on beautiful things that black people were doing and making and it was also such a unifying week. We wanted all people to learn about this fabric, to appreciate it, to support some small black businesses selling the fabric and be comfortable using the fabric themselves. We discussed traditions, special  and sacred fabrics, we discussed appropriation and we really hope we struck the right balance of education and celebration. The response to that week totally overwhelmed us, I loved every minute of it. Well, I have rambled a bit but I guess that's the story of my coming to love Ankara. So, identity and belonging that's where I began. As a Christian, I have learned to be secure in my identity rooted in the Bible's teaching and that where I come from and where I live have been wonderfully planned. Sadly, it took me longer than I liked to shed the discomfort and embarrassment of being African.  What's with my love affair with wax print fabric? Apart from it being absolutely fabulous fabric, strong and forgiving to sew with, vibrant, lush and long lasting, and a piece of artwork with a story, I love the feeling that it connects me with Ghana, my original homeland. I love that when I wear it in a traditional garment it makes me feel bold, feminine and confident where once I felt embarrassed. I love to use it to make fitted, vintage style dresses too as well as more casual tops and trousers. It is never ordinary and I love that.

♥️

My favourite places for buying wax print online are: Dovetailed London, Ankara Shop UK, Middlesbrough Textiles and Urbanstax.
I'm really fortunate to live near Ridley Road Market in Dalston, East London and there are several Ankara stalls there. Brixton Market is also great for those on the other side of the river.

You can find Lena on Instagram @thatlenaking and on her blog The Unpick Stitch Papers.

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Thank you so so much Lena for sharing your deeply touching and tender story with us! That cycle of rejecting ones heritage in order to "fit in", only to feel even more alienated, followed by homecoming of sorts - rediscovering your roots and lovingly embracing that which once you felt ashamed of, will be so relatable by so many people all over the world. The fact that you get to celebrate your roots through fabric as joyous and iconic as Ankara makes your journey even sweeter ♥️

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