Colourful African wax print fabrics (also known as Dutch wax, ankara, kitenge or chitenge) first originated from Indonesia, which was a Dutch colony.
The Dutch produced imitations of the popular Indonesian batik fabrics in bulk using industrial machinery. They were not well received in Indonesia but they were well-loved in Africa when brought home by soldiers in the 1880s.
Ankara fabric is commonly worn in many African countries. Women traditionally wear the fabrics wrapped around their body like a long skirt, top or headscarf. Tailors and fashion designers also use the 100% cotton fabrics to make modern afrocentric clothing and accessories.
African print fabric is usually 46 to 48 inches wide and comes in lengths of 6 or 12 yards, sometimes referred to as single or double pieces.
The fabric pattern is the same on the front and back of the fabric. Information on the fabric selvedge shows which country the fabric was made in, along with the design reference number.
Learn more about African wax print clothing and the story behind the fabric.
It can be a lot of fun working with African print fabrics because of their bright colours, versatility and their bold and unique patterns which often feature animals, geometric shapes, floral and tribal motifs.
‘Village Molokai’ tribal print fabric (photo credit: Vlisco)
There are also hidden meanings behind the popular and well-known designs, which have been created by the women who wear them.
In this blog, we will share top tips and advice on getting started with African wax print fabric to get the most out of the look you’re creating and most importantly to have fun with it.
You might have tried sewing with this fabric before or it might be your first time. We hope that everyone who reads this blog can learn something new about the fabric that will help you with future projects.
The first step is to choose a suitable sewing pattern that you’re happy with. We recommend choosing a simple sewing pattern so you can let the fabric do all the talking.
Pattern matching can be challenging when cutting ankara fabric so be aware of this when choosing your design, as you won’t want to break the print up too much.
It’s also worth noting where you would like key features of the print, such as circles, birds or flowers to be positioned before you cut out your pattern pieces.
You might not like them to cover your bust, bottom or crotch area so be mindful of the pattern placement before you begin cutting.
There are some African print fabric designs that are more suitable for different types of clothing. For example, a small-scale floral print may be more suitable to make a blouse but not a pair of trousers.
Also, take into consideration if your fabric has a repeating pattern as well as the scale of the design.
Tip: don’t forget to keep hold of all the fabric offcuts after cutting your pattern pieces, as they can be upcycled by making smaller items like accessories. They can also be used to re-purpose old clothing or even made into patchwork fabric or quilts!
One obvious sign that shows if your fabric is original (or an imitation) is how easy it is to remove the main, large rectangular label.
If the main sticker on the fabric can be peeled straight off without leaving a sticky mark on the fabric then it is likely to be authentic. If you have trouble removing the sticker, and it leaves sticky marks, then chances are it is imitation fabric.
Stickers on imitation fabric printed in China, which copies Vlisco’s Sugar Cane Plant design
Tip: if you are having trouble removing the stickers then you can cover them with a pressing cloth and use a hot iron with steam to help melt the glue.
Alternatively, you can wet the labels with cold water and remove them after waiting for a few minutes. This should also help to dissolve any remaining glue on the fabric.
Pre-washing your fabric before cutting your pattern pieces will also help to remove any sticky parts after removing the labels.
Before making our African print clothing we always pre-wash the fabrics before taking them to our talented team of tailors. This is because the fabric is 100% cotton so is likely to shrink after the first wash.
Another reason is that during the first wash the colours are likely to run a lot. According to an article from Deer and Doe, you can set the dye before you pre-wash the fabric. To do this you just need to soak the fabric in a bucket of water overnight with a few spoonfuls of white vinegar.
We recommend pre-washing the fabric the same way that you would care for the finished garment at home; our simple wash care instructions can help guide you.
We usually machine-wash our fabrics at 30 degrees and line-dry out of direct sunlight as the sun can damage the colour. If you prefer, you can dry on low to medium heat.
You’ll also find that after the first wash the fabric feels softer and less stiff so easier to cut out your pattern pieces. You can iron the fabric with steam on the cotton setting.
Now all you need to do is select the African print fabric you’d like to use to get started!
During the pandemic, the best place to purchase African print fabrics is online. We recommend supporting small independent businesses that also have a social purpose like Kitenge Store, which empower their Tanzanian tailors to improve their livelihoods one colourful garment at a time.
Kitenge African menswear tailor, Emile, in Tanzania, East Africa
We also recommend purchasing original fabrics that are printed on the African continent to help support the declining textile industry and protect jobs.
You’ll also prefer the excellent quality of the fabric compared to imitation fabrics produced in China or India for example.
To learn more about what to avoid when it comes to choosing ankara fabric read our blog, How to Tell The Difference Between Original and Counterfeit African Wax Print Fabric.
While you’re here why not take a browse of our authentic, brightly coloured African wax print fabrics that are printed in Nigeria, West Africa, and locally sourced and shipped worldwide from Tanzania, East Africa. Our fabulous collection includes prints in both bright and dark colours as well as different scales.
Our kitenge fabrics are sold by the yard (1 to 6) so you can order the exact amount that you need avoiding wastage. There may also be some fat quarters available for quilters, which are leftover from our African print clothing production.
Please do not hesitate to get in touch with any questions you might have. We have a wealth of experience creating stunning African styles and accessories for both men and women.
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