What comes into your mind when you think about wax fabrics? Yes, vibrant colors and bold motifs. When you think about wax fabrics, they have patterns that are stunningly striking and bold color palettes. But if we go deep down to these vibrant colors and patterns, you’ll find so many stories, history woven into each and every piece.

African traditional fabrics in a shop in Ghana.

African wax fabric is often called “Ankara” in West Africa and “Kitenge” in East Africa. Though it’s called African wax fabrics, they were first originated in Indonesia (Dutch East Indies during the European Colonial Times) and they were the traditional batik fabrics. West African soldiers, who were serving in Indonesia in the 1800s, started to import the fabrics into Africa. Later, European traders replicated the fabrics using modern machinery, particularly the Dutch who is one of the main producers of the fabrics today. These fabrics are produced in mass, hundred percent cotton cloth. The print is the same on both and front side and backside of the fabric.

The highly decorative, ancient craft of batik printing is a form of wax-resist dyeing of fabric. The patterns used varied from different regions they were originated and the occasions that they were meant to be worn. Wax fabrics are so popular, and it’s being bought and sold across so many continents. The colors come from natural ingredients too. “Many of the different designs and motifs (usually the older ones) have meanings and are often named after sayings, personalities or occasions,” confirms Adaku Parker, a barrister, and owner of an online wax print fabric shop, Dovetailed. “Essentially, the fabric, through the designs and motifs, tells a story. Many of the designs still worn today date back to my grandmothers’ time, thereby making them classic designs. One such design, and one of my own personal favorites, is ‘Nsu Bra’. It is a common design that most people will know. Ghanaians call this fabric Nsu Bura (or spelled Nsu Bra), which is from the (Akan) Twi language in Ghana and means ‘well’. The tiny dots, which are in a spiral form, resemble the ripples made in a well after a stone is dropped into it.”

African wax print, as mentioned is an ancient art form, and the method producing this is called Batik. The designs and patterns are printed onto cloth using melted wax and dye are applied.

The crackling effect displayed on the cloth is caused by the wax-resist dyeing technique and special machinery. These wax print fabrics are mostly incorporated with patterns and motifs as it reflects the African culture. Ankara fabrics are used as a method of non-verbal communication and expression because of their hidden meanings and worn by African women mostly. The designs, colors also represent the marriage, tribe, and social status of the wearer. Once the fabrics are designed, printed, and distributed the women who wear them created stories and hidden meanings in them. Few Examples of printed fabric designs include plants, flowers, animal print (particularly birds), tribal print African fabric, and geometric shapes…

Wax print cloths sold in a market, Luanda Province, Luanda, Angola.
LUANDA, ANGOLA – JULY 21: Wax print cloths sold in a market, Luanda Province, Luanda, Angola on July 21, 2018 in Luanda, Angola. (Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)

These unique African wax fabrics do have many uses. It can be worn by wrapping the fabrics around your body, can be used for carrying babies on their mother’s back, as an apron while cooking or cleaning. This fabric is not only worn but it can also be used to make curtains, cushions, bedsheets, quilts, napkins, and also these can be used as accessories as well like bags, shoes, and jewelry. So you can see that this African wax fabric is not only pretty but it’s pretty much versatile and you can use it for so many things. African wax fabrics or Ankara fabrics are an eye-catcher due to their bright colors and stunningly unique motifs and they are easy to fall in love with.

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