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Patterns in Circulation

Cloth, Gender, and Materiality in West Africa

In this book, Nina Sylvanus tells a captivating story of global trade and cross-cultural aesthetics in West Africa, showing how a group of Togolese women—through the making and circulation of wax cloth—became influential agents of taste and history. Traveling deep into the shifting terrain of textile manufacture, design, and trade, she follows wax cloth around the world and through time to unveil its critical role in colonial and postcolonial patterns of exchange and value production.
Sylvanus brings wax cloth’s unique and complex history to light: born as a nineteenth-century Dutch colonial effort to copy Javanese batik cloth for Southeast Asian markets, it was reborn as a status marker that has dominated the visual economy of West African markets. Although most wax cloth is produced in China today, it continues to be central to the expression of West African women’s identity and power. As Sylvanus shows, wax cloth expresses more than this global motion of goods, capital, aesthetics, and labor—it is a form of archive where intimate and national memories are stored, always ready to be reanimated by human touch. By uncovering this crucial aspect of West African material culture, she enriches our understanding of global trade, the mutual negotiations that drive it, and the how these create different forms of agency and subjectivity.

Read the Introduction.

224 pages | 10 color plates, 18 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Art: Middle Eastern, African, and Asian Art

History: African History


"Sylvanus illuminates the cloth’s centrality to ever-shifting conceptions of social status, authenticity, personal style, and political power. . . . Patterns in Circulation reveals wax print as a stand-in for capitalist modernity in the twenty-first century built on multinational production and financing, invested with local, highly personal meanings, and always teetering on the edge of unruly transformation."

The Art Bulletin

"By providing a detailed history of this company and the intersecting histories of colonialism and printing techniques, Sylvanus shows how the company’s recent brand publicity as both authentic African heritage and the latest new fashion reflects the company’s attempts to manage the fast-paced competition for consumers of West African cloth, who have a range of manufactured wax and fancy print cloth from which to choose....The author also presents an excellent discussion of intellectual property rights, with the company, Vlisco, claiming legal and technical rights to its wax print textiles while Togolese women claim their own measures of value and ownership."


"Sylvanus's excellent multi-layered trans-historical study of Togolese wax-print fabric (or pagne) interweaves the role of African women in postcolonial developments, on the one hand, with a timely intervention in the ‘China-in-Africa’ debates on the other. . . . Provides essential reading not only for those interested in wax cloth, but also for those interested in its long-standing role in patterning relations between women, market and nation."


“In this wonderfully written book, we meet fascinating Togolese women who have been—and still are—central figures in the tapestry of the transnational trade in cloth. Given her deep ethnographic and theoretical knowledge, Sylvanus is able to unpack how these able women negotiate the ever-changing and ever-dangerous crosscurrents of the global economy. In so doing, we come to understand the central importance of cloth to a comprehension of sensuous materiality. This is a book that will be deeply read and passionately debated for years to come.”

Paul Stoller, author of Yaya’s Story and 2013 Anders Retizus Gold Medal Laureate

“Highly readable, Patterns in Circulation tells a story of historical twists and turns in the European and Chinese production of cloth specifically produced for West African consumers and of the rise and fall of the women in Togo who controlled the trade. Sylvanus demonstrates how printed cloths act together with the women who wear them, taking cultural ownership of a very special textile with multiple origins. With rich insights into a unique aspect of global capitalism, this book is an outstanding contribution to the study of material culture and consumption as well as a fine-grained political regional ethnography.”

Karen Tranberg Hansen, author of Salaula

“The pagne is an anthropological puzzle crying out for exploration, and Sylvanus guides us deep into the cultural, historical, economic, and aesthetic tangle, along the way providing a norm-shattering portrait of African women as producers and consumers in the global economy. She demonstrates how the ‘dense materiality’ of fabric binds local human actors, material agency, the state, and capitalist forces together in mutually determining ways. This is one of the richest ethnographies yet written on cultural mixture and commodity chains, revealing that nothing about taste, design, or authenticity is as it first appears. It disrupts any conception of West African societies that is not already fundamentally global.”

Sasha Newell, author of The Modernity Bluff

"Presents an ethnography of West African wax cloth, exploring the history, manufacture, and marketing of wax cloth and using data collected between 2000 and 2010 to illustrate political, economic, and gender relations in global capitalism."

Journal of Economic Literature

Table of Contents


Introduction: Patterns in Circulation
1  Fashioning the Body: Dressing the Public Self
2  Archival Prints: Alternate Histories of Taste and Circulation
3  Branding Cloth, Branding Nation: The Nana Benz and the Materiality of Power
4  Flexible Patterns: The Nanettes Remake the Market and Cloth in China
5  Dangerous Copies: Old Value Systems in a New Economy
Conclusion: Assigamé Burning



African Studies Association UK: Fage & Oliver Prize

Pernal Family: Pernal Prize in African History

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