Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Sorber, Frieda. “Green Labels with Golden Elephants: Western European Printed Cottons for Malaysia and Indonesia.” Contact, Crossover, Continuity: Proceedings of the Fourth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 22–24, 1994 (Los Angeles, CA: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1995), pp. 105–116.


Copyright © 1994 Frieda Sorber


In the second half of the 19th century, several Belgian cotton printing firms were involved in the production of imitations of African and Southeast Asian textiles for markets in West-Africa, the Dutch East Indies, and Malaysia. Extensive records of one firm, the Societe Anonyme Texas, owned by the Voortman family in Ghent, have been preserved in the Ghent public records office and the Vrieselhof Textile Museum (Oelegem, near Antwerp). Frans de Vos and Abraham Voortman started a cotton printing establishment in Ghent in 1790. At that time cotton printing was a relatively new type of enterprise in Flanders. The first large-scale factory, the "Compagnie Beerenbroeck," had been set up by Antwerp business men 1753. They hired foreign specialists (mainly Dutch and German) and set up one of the first truly capitalist ventures in Flanders. At it's heyday the firm employed over 600 people. Even before the end of a 25-year monopoly, granted by the government of the Austrian Netherlands, many smaller printing workshops tried to enter the new market. The successful ones emerged mainly in Brussels and Ghent. De Vos and Voortman were among the many who started printing on imported cotton fabrics from India (1790). Unlike many other firms they remained in business for a long time. Even today the Voortman family is still involved in the Ghent textile industry. Towards the end of the 18th century, they started a spinning mill, followed by a mechanical weaving mill in the 1820s. The same development occurred in many other Ghent printing firms. In the second quarter of the 19th century, Ghent became known as the Manchester of Belgium. The textile industry occupied a considerable part of the workforce in Ghent and the surrounding countryside. But whereas in the spinning and weaving mills new technological developments were often followed immediately after they had been introduced in England, cotton printing often lagged behind. By 1850 many firms had stopped printing all together. The few remaining printing workshops had relatively little machinery and all still maintained hand block printing, by now obsolete in many English textile mills. Since most of the Ghent printed cottons catered for the lower end of the local market, competition with cheaper, imported, roller-printed cottons became almost impossible. If a firm wanted to keep its printing operations going it had to either mechanize or explore new markets. A few firms choose the latter option. One solution was to specialize into imitations of Javanese batiks and West African textiles, destined for markets in Africa and Southeast Asia.