March 14, 2020 - Fabric

Everything You Need to Know about African Print Fabric

Ankara fabric made in Nigeria West Africa

Kitenge have just launched their colourful and unique range of African print fabric on their online store! Their popular and quirky fabric prints are now available to purchase alongside their fabulous range of made to measure clothing.

Continue reading to learn more about African print fabric including it’s: history, hidden meanings, production, designs, uses, wash care advice and how to buy!

What is African Wax Print Fabric 

African wax print fabric, also know as kitenge and ankara fabric, is mass produced, colourful, 100% cotton cloth commonly worn and used to make clothing, accessories and other products in Africa.

The method of producing the fabric is called batik, a wax resist dyeing technique and ancient art form that originates from Indonesia.

The print design and colours look the same on both the front and back sides of the fabric. The quality of the fabric depends on the type of cotton cloth used as well as the manufacturing processes used.

A whole ‘double’ piece of kitenge fabric is 12 yards in length but you may also be able to purchase half ‘single’ pieces, which are 6 yards in length. The width of the fabric varies between different manufacturers; it is usually 46 to 48 inches.

The History of Ankara/Kitenge Fabric

When the Dutch colonised Indonesia, their merchants discovered batik fabrics and brought samples back to The Netherlands.

Dutch textile manufacturers developed ways to print the fabric in bulk by machine and started to produce cheaper batik inspired imitation fabrics.

These new fabrics were not popular in Indonesia, as the original batik fabrics were preferred. However, they were well received when imported into West Africa in the 1880’s.

The popularity of the fabrics was largely due to West Africa soldiers, who were serving in Indonesia, as they brought back the batik fabrics when they returned home.

Several different manufacturers in Europe, including the British and Dutch, produced the fabric for many years before manufacturing expanded to African countries.


Grey fabric inspection at a West African factory making African print fabric


Grey cloth inspection before ankara fabric production

In recent years, there has been a surge in manufacturing of the fabrics in Asia (mainly India and China). The fabrics they produce are lower quality and cheaper compared to original fabrics produced in West Africa.

Traditional batik making techniques are still practiced in African countries such as Ghana. Small-scale workshops, usually run by entrepreneurs, create beautiful fabrics by hand with no machinery involved.

They carve the designs onto sponge blocks before printing the wax onto the fabric.


Traditional batik African wax print fabric design carved into sponge Ghana West Africa


Traditional batik African wax print fabric made in Ghana West Africa


The fabrics worn by African women are sometimes used as a method of non-verbal communication and expression due to their well-known hidden meanings. The colours and symbols used in each print design can symbolise a tribe, marriage and social status of the wearer.

After the fabrics are designed, printed and distributed to markets, particularly in West Africa, the women who wear them create the stories and hidden meanings behind them. This information is passed back to the manufacturer who gives the fabric a new catchy name.

For example, there is a popular Ghanaian print known as ‘speed bird’. It has multiple birds flying in the same direction meaning you can be ‘rich today, poor tomorrow’ as money can easily fly away.

Another popular print in Ghana is called ‘Nsu Bura’, which is an Akan word for ‘water well’. The ripples of water that are visible when water is collected from a well is represented by the tiny dots in the design. It means that whatever you do (good or bad) it will impact everyone around you.

This print is also know as the ‘Record Disc’ in Nigeria due to the round shape as it looks like it symbolises an old vinyl record.


Popular African print fabric design from Ghana called nsubra used to make modern Afrocentric clothing


The well loved Ghanaian ‘Nsu Bura’ cloth design made into modern Afrocentric clothing

How is African Wax Print Fabric Made? 

The basic steps of African wax print fabric production include:

1) Melted, molten wax is printed by machine onto both sides of the cloth

2) The cloth is put into an indigo dye bath (the dye repels the wax covered areas of the fabric)

3) A machine cracks the wax to create a marbling and bubbles effect

4) Printing machines add two or three colours to the design

5) The cloth is washed (boiled) to remove the wax, which is recycled and reused

6) Different finishes are applied to the cloth

The manufacturer may also add one of the colours by block printing part of the design onto the fabric by hand.

Each batch of the same fabric design can look slightly different due to the varying colour tones and random marbling and bubbles effect.

African Print Fabric Styles & Designs

There are many different African print fabric styles and designs, which change frequently at the markets in Africa. It can be difficult to purchase the same fabric twice unless you purchase from a physical shop or online.

Examples of printed fabric designs include: flowers, plants, animal print (particularly birds), tribal print African fabric and geometric shapes…


The feather ankara design printed in Ghana West Africa


The ‘feather’ ankara fabric design printed in Ghana


The Big Bang ankara design printed in Ghana West Africa


The ‘big bang’ ankara fabric design printed in Ghana


The zing ankara design printed in Ghana West AFrica


The ‘zing’ ankara fabric design printed in Ghana


The Bonsu ankara design printed in Ghana West Africa


The ‘bonsu’ ankara fabric design printed in Ghana

What Can the Fabric Be Used For?

African print fabric has many uses. Firstly, it can be worn as it is by wrapping the fabric around your body like a towel. It can be used as an apron when cooking or cleaning, for carrying babies on the mothers back and of course for making modern African print clothing.


Kitenge founder Sian wearing African print shirt and kitenge fabric while cooking outside in Tanzania open fire


Kitenge founder, Sian, wearing an African print shirt and fabric wrapped around her waist when cooking Christmas dinner in Tanzania

The fabric can also be used to make cushions, curtains, bed sheets, napkins, quilts, lampshades, bunting for the home as well as accessories such as bags, shoes and jewellery.

Pretty much anything you can think of can be made from using African print fabric. It’s incredibly versatile and that’s the beauty of it!


African wax print sofa cushion covers


A sofa with African wax print fabric cushion covers


Reusable purple African print fabric shopping bag model wearing


A reusable Kitenge fabric shopping bag


Kitenge customers at WOMAD festival 2017 modelling their matching his and hers African wax print hairband and bow tie


A Kitenge fabric hair band and bow tie




Kitenge fabric bunting



Kitenge fabric curtains

How to Wash African Wax Print Fabric 

African print fabric can be washed by hand or in the machine in cold water (30 degrees is best) with similar colours. Use mild washing powder and a gentle machine setting such as ‘hand wash’. Line dry outside away from direct sunlight as it can cause the colours to fade.

Read our guide on how to wash African print fabric.


Washing machine with African wax print fabric inside


Tip: if you are planning to use the fabric to make clothing or cushions it is best to pre-wash in the machine first to prevent it from shrinking again in future washes.

Buying African Print Fabric 

Ankara fabric can now be bought in various lengths (1 to 6 yards) from Kitenge’s African boutique online! Simply choose your preferred fabric(s) and add how many yards you would like to your basket. There may also be some fat quarters available for quilters and crafts people.

There is a broad range of gorgeous patterns, styles and colours to choose from, including the following examples:


red blue floral kitenge fabric design closeup


Kitenge Red Floral African Print Fabric


Pink and orange flowers African print ankara fabric close up


Kitenge Pink Orange Flower African Print Fabric


yellow red blue original african wax print fabric design close up


Kitenge Yellow/Red/Blue African Print Fabric


blue purple green flower african wax print fabric design closeup


Kitenge Blue Green Purple African Print Fabric

Kitenge Store’s original, high quality fabrics are printed in Nigeria, West Africa, using locally grown cotton. They are sourced from a family-run, small business in Tanzania, East Africa.


Kitenge founder Sian with African print fabric supplier in Tanzania


Kitenge Store Founder, Sian, visiting our fabric supplier in Tanzania

All fabrics are shipped promptly from Tanzania to worldwide destinations by recorded post. Delivery takes up to 10-14 days by recorded post or within 2-5 days by courier.

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