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Original Issue


One of the world's oldest fabrics, so old that no one knows exactly where it was first made, is becoming an American favorite. Its colors make madras look pale

Champ, the 5-year-old giraffe on the opposite page, has very little reason to be homesick. He's the top banana in an enormous Florida sideshow just off U.S. 1 called Africa, U.S.A., and he has hundreds of acres of "veldt" to roam about in. For company, he has flocks of ostriches and herds of zebras and Biblical asses, and a Masai warrior in leopard skin, feathers and paint (who is a native of Pompano Springs). He frequently dines on loaves of one-day-old Thomas bread, one of this country's choicer brands, and the climate is so good that people at the Boca Raton club across the road pay upward of $40 a day for a brief winter's sojourn in it.

But Champ may very well have been experiencing a bit of nostalgia for the Old Country at the moment this picture was taken. He's just come face to face with an attractive bit of batik, a cotton fabric worn by the folks back home for the past 100 years or so. And although Champ doesn't know it, he's going to be seeing a lot more of it, for batik seems to be the successor to India's madras as the next hand-crafted fabric to crop up in sun-time American sports clothes.

Like madras, which has enlivened the American resort and summer scene for the past several years, batik has a colorful historical origin. It's such an ancient process that authorities don't know exactly when or where it began—in India, China or Java—but the African branch of the industry got its start in the early 19th century when missionaries brought lengths of the fabric from the Orient to clothe the naked native bodies. The natives of the Gold Coast from Senegal to Zambezi have developed their own batik industry, taking the patterns from their surroundings, using floral and plant-life motifs as well as insects and animals. In much the same tradition as batik makers all over the world (the word itself is a Javanese one describing the resist-dyeing process), they coat bleached fabrics with wax or other substances, then dip them in the dyes, and the design is made by the "resisting" wax. The prints are now the product of a mechanized industry in Great Britain, Holland and Switzerland, as well as Africa. The mechanized printing of batiks has reached such a state of perfection that it is difficult for any but technicians to tell the machine-made from the hand-dyed varieties.

The Africans not only wear the cloth, but they hoard lengths of it. The proudest possession of every woman is a trunkful of cloth, and family history and national events are remembered by the patterns worn at the time. At weddings and in days of mourning, whole families and societies wear the same pattern on parade. At Zanzibar every wife is entitled to receive two new dress lengths every month. Failure to provide them is grounds for divorce. And the patterns have their own stories to tell: a flying-duck pattern is symbolic of the exile of a famous king, the bird representing his spirit flying back to his home. A sort of upside-down tulip represents the evil spirit and is found in every home. Light colors are preferred in the plains, and dark in the forests. The indigo and other dyes will "bleed" in the manner of madras, but that is considered part of the charm. Now coming in on a strong tropical wave by way of Caribbean resorts, just as did madras, batik promises soon to be as popular on the American scene as it is in Nigeria.

Patricia Massie Tevander of Palm Beach wears shell-print batik shirt (Hathaway, $11), and Rory Harrity of Delray Beach one with a calico pattern (Mather, $13) on safari in Africa, U.S.A.

Oriental patterns are typical of batiks worn in East Africa (Mather Shirts, $13). The deep-crown sailor is from Dobbs ($10).

Medallion-printed batik (Lady Hathaway, $11) represents African home, with circles symbolizing fences around the kraals.

Block print that combines African and Oriental motifs is adapted in a color-fast print for lined swim trunks (Palm Beach, $8).

Gold, indigo blue are colors preferred by Africans on savanna, or plain, as in this woman's sport shirt (Mather Shirts, $13).