The Founding of Vlisco
August 15. On this day in 1846 the P.A. Sutorius & Co. factory is renamed P.F. van Vlissingen & Co. (now known as Vlisco).
In 1844 Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen, often referred to as Pieter 2, took over his father’s cotton printing mill in Helmond, The Netherlands. Two years later he renamed it P.F. van Vlissingen & Co., now known as Vlisco.
The 20-year old was in charge of 50 employees, had a brand new block-printing machine and big dreams. Pieter wanted to compete with international cotton printers – the British (especially in Manchester) were a dominating force in Europe, and the French Elzas on Europe’s mainland. His dream was pretty realistic because the economy was flourishing and there was a great demand for printed cotton.
Mechanised cotton printing
The industrial revolution in Europa boosted technical innovations in the textile industry: the process of printing cotton was mechanized and factories became the home of machines like the perrotine. This machine mechanized the traditional (rather labour-intensive) block printing and could increase productivity nine fold.
Pieter’s uncle, Frederik ‘Frits’ Hendrik Fentener van Vlissingen, was aware of these developments and perceived business opportunities. Frits owned a sugar plantation on the island of Java, the Dutch East Indies (present Indonesia). In 1852 he visited a small factory in the southern part of Java, where men and women were drawing lines and dots on cotton with the technique of wax-resist dyeing, known as batik. Impressed by the quality, Frits immediately sent examples of the fabrics to Helmond.
Batik tulis were drawn entirely by hand according to a process that originated in India. A craftsman worked weeks, months, or even a whole year to make just one sarong with his canting. Frits asked his nephew to see if the factory in Helmond could print imitation wax-batik in an inexpensive way. If so, a vast market would open up because there was a great demand for sarongs, slendangs and headscarves. He also told Pieter to keep in mind that all the colours and patterns were coded: certain colours could indicate that the wearer was of noble descent, clear white signified death or mourning and some of the parang patterns were to be worn only by royals.
The Fentener van Vlissingen family were not the only one who focused on imitation wax-batiks. On the contrary: in England, Switzerland, and Belgium they already developed a way to industrialize that production, long before Frits had sent the first batiks to Helmond. It was the Belgian Jean Baptiste Theodore Prévinaire (working for the Haarlemse Katoenmaatschappij, HKM) who spent years and years in his laboratory to create dyes and developed a printing-machine he named ‘La Javanaise’. In 1854 the machine was patented and the technique was kept secret until 1910. Therefore, HKM became the largest textile manufacturer in the Netherlands, producing the best imitation wax-batiks.
A letter from Helmond
As soon as the examples arrived from Java, the craftsmen in Helmond tried to make genuine copies of the cloth. The colourist had the hardest task, as he only used natural dye, like indigo and alizarin, (also known as Turkey Red) to get the perfect colour. Weeks after the first shipment was sent to Java, a letter arrived in Helmond on November 17, 1852. Frits wrote that the first batch of imitation wax-batik was very well received. The story goes that especially the brown was looking better than the real batiks. The correspondence between Pieter and Frits makes clear that the imitation wax-batiks from Helmond were a grand success and that Pieter allowed himself to use different colours and try new designs. To seal the business, the private Batik-Associatie was founded (with Frits as a key figure). The trading house decided which batiks were copied in Helmond and they had the sole right to sell it. Transport from The Netherlands to Java was done by Pieter’s other uncle, Paul Fentener van Vlissingen.
The fabrics from Helmond became popular and gained a good reputation: they were becoming the most important competitor to HKM and P.F. van Vlissingen & Co. was subject of to forgery. In 1857 a shipment of 32 boxes was discovered on Java, stuffed with fabrics bearing the name of the factory in Helmond. In the 1860s sales of imitation wax-batiks skyrocketed and P.F. van Vlissingen & Co. was right in the middle of the economic upheaval and rapid technical innovations. Pieter was obsessed with these developments and bought a brand new Mather & Platt rouleau printing machine in Manchester (and commend that Helmond became a part of the Vlissingen-Venlo railway line, because he knew that trains were the future). Together with his brother in law, Frederik Jacob Matthijsen, who entered the firm in 1852 and was married to Pieter’s sister, the factory was extended. Every year, new buildings erected on the factory site, the piece of land between the old city canal de Mey and the river Aa. In 1864 more than 250 people worked in the factory.
Decline in trade
For many Dutch textile manufacturers, the Dutch East Indies was the most important sales market. So when a decline in trade set in around 1870, many companies were having a hard time. There are several theories to explain this decline. It is often suggested that the local batik industry caused it because they made more use of the tjap – a copper stamp for printing fabrics. The tjap was faster and cheaper than wax printing with a tjanting, and thus Javanese manufacturers could compete with the Dutch batiks.
Many argue that this development coincided with the abolition of the differential tariffs system in 1872, a system by which Dutch products were exempted from import duties. And ofcourse, in 1873 the Great Depression set in, a worldwide recession as a result of the rapid economic boom that was caused by the Second Industrial Revolution. We don’t know which cause was most troubling (most likely it was a combination of events), but we do know that P.F. van Vlissingen & Co. was in trouble in the 1870s.
Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen didn’t witness those harsh years, as he died in 1868. Matthijsen took over, together with Swiss Conrad Hermann Deutsch. Deutsch remained in the firm for 5 years, while the young Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen (Pieter 3) and his nephew Jan Matthijsen studied at the Polytechnikum in Zürich – the same school where the 16-year old Albert Einstein would enter in 1895.
Pieter and Jan were in charge of the factory in 1875, the year everyone became more and more pessimistic about the future. Young and ambitious, they decided to take a massive gamble. Huge sums of money were invested to double the production – to lower the production costs. Their boldness paid off: in 1880 P.F. van Vlissingen & Co. was back on track, although three years later a huge fire destroyed the complete factory. Fires were very common in the textile industry, and this time it enabled P.F. van Vlissingen & Co. to build a bigger, better and more modern factory – it was only the fifth factory in Europa to install an automatic fire extinguisher. The new factory was ready when a period of non-stop economic boom started, and slowly the cottons from Helmond were exported to other countries like Japan and Sweden. In the 1880s the first shipment set sail to Africa, a shipment that marked the beginning of a new era.
Textile Imagery: Original Batik sampels from Indonesia supplied by Frederik Hendrik van Vlissingen (uncle Frits) starting from 1846;
Factory Image: Regional Historisc Centre Eindhoven and Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen Foundation, Helmond;
Van Vlissingen & Co’s gedenkboek 1846-1946. Honderd jaren Van Vlissingen & Co, over de kunst van het drukken (1946);
A. Bolliger, Ein Beitrag zur Entwicklung des europäischen Textildrucks, eine historische-systematische Untersuchung (1950);
I. Keller, Batik Art & Craft (1966); G.P.J. Verbong, Technische innovaties in de katoendrukkerij en –ververij in Nederland 1835-1920 (1988);
D. van Reybrouck, Congo. Een Geschiedenis (2010);
H.J. Hesselink, Strategische besluitvorming in een neergaande bedrijfstak. Onderzoek naar de strategische maatregelen in de KRL textiel-industrie in de periode 1950-2000 (2010);
J. Arts, Vlisco (2012);
N. Sylvanus, Patterns in Circulation: Cloth, Gender and Materiality in West-Africa (2016);