There are many different styles, designs and colours of original African print fabric (known as ‘ankara’ in West Africa and ‘kitenge’ in East Africa) depending on the country of origin.
Ghanaian fabrics, for example, are usually brighter in colour than the Nigerian African wax print fabric, which tend to use darker tones.
In Ghana, people wear traditional red, black and white printed fabric for funerals. Close relatives usually wear red cloth and white is worn if the person was an elder.
Traditional handwoven kente fabrics are often worn at special occasions such as weddings.
Did you know that ankara fabric designs have hidden meanings? Once a manufacturer creates a new design it is then produced and sold in busy markets.
Fabric traders and customers often create stories about the different designs, which are eventually discovered by the manufacturer who renames the designs accordingly.
Shelves in an African wax print fabric shop
Continue reading to learn more about the hidden meanings behind the different colourful designs.
When Indonesia was a Dutch colony, their merchants imported batik fabrics that they had discovered into The Netherlands.
Textile manufacturers in The Netherlands started to produce large quantities of batik inspired fabrics by machine.
The Dutch tried to sell these newly created imitation fabrics in Indonesia with little success, as locals preferred the original batik.
In the 1800’s, West African soldiers, who were serving in Indonesia at the time, brought back the batik fabrics when they returned home where they were well received.
After the Dutch heard about the popularity of the fabrics in West Africa they started to import the imitation fabric in bulk.
Other European countries started to produce the fabric, including the British, before manufacturing was expanded (or moved) to the African continent.
Today, the fabrics are often referred to as ‘African print fabric’ due to their popularity on the continent and association with African culture because of their tribal patterns and motifs.
Certain colours and designs can reflect local traditions, customs and symbols such as marriage. Some women use the fabrics as a non-verbal way of communication.
Find out more about the history of African print fabric.
There are plenty of different styles of African print fabric to explore!
Animals are commonly featured in African print fabric designs especially birds such as chickens. Even in large African cities you will find chickens and goats wondering around streets and houses freely.
A Kitenge Men’s shirt featuring heads of chickens
The below design, also printed in Nigeria, could be a peacock or a guineafowl due to the black spotted pattern, which are native to Africa.
Guineafowls are usually more expensive than chickens as they are a delicacy. Guineafowl or peacock printed African fabric designs can be worn for special occasions such as feasts.
African print fabric designs may also include: snails, fish, horses, lions, leopards and even spiders! For example, a fabric design that features tortoises can symbolise patience, strength and determination.
In Tanzania alone there are over 200 tribes each with their own culture, traditions, food and language.
Many African people have moved from their villages to urban areas to find work. The towns and cities now include a mixture of many different tribes and therefore have a wonderfully diverse culture.
Back in the villages you will find many traditions are still practiced and people rely mainly on agriculture and livestock as their source of income.
A traditional tribal house built in Tanzania
An example of a tribal fabric design is called ‘Village Molokai’, which is popular in the DR Congo. The design features traditional tribal houses as well as chickens, trees and plants.
The design is also known as ‘The War of Shaba’, which represents the province’s struggle for independence so it has a historical significance.
‘Village Molokai’ tribal print fabric (photo credit: Vlisco)
Floral motifs are popular in many African countries. In Ghana, if women wear a certain leaf motif in a blue colourway then they are non-verbally communicating to others that they are pregnant.
Some designs of floral African print fabric symbolise happiness in a marriage and may be given to parents of the bride as part of a dowry.
Other floral fabric designs are believed to bring success and wealth to your family. Perhaps this is why floral print designs are so popular and commonly worn.
Different Nigerian floral African wax print designs
Extended family is everything in African culture and elders are hugely respected. Each family member has an individual role and they all support each other unconditionally.
Many African print fabric designs reflect family life including unity, strength, children and food including sugar cane, which means the wearer is loved.
The below African print fabric design features pineapples, one of the many exotic fruits grown on the continent as well as: mangoes, papaya, passion fruit, guava and bananas.
Agriculture provides employment for many people all over Africa so it is vital for economies and people’s livelihoods.
The below well-known design is called many names in different countries including ‘Nsu Bura’, which means ‘water well’ in Ghana.
When you throw a stone in a well it creates ripples, which means that whatever you do it will have a positive or negative effect on your friends and family.
Water is essential for survival. If you wear this design it can show others that you have access to water and good health as well as confidence.
In Togo, the design reflects a hat that protects the wearer from the sun. In Nigeria, the design resembles old vinyl records because of the round ‘disc’ shape.
The popular ‘record’ or ‘gramophone’ design
There are numerous African print designs that resemble love, marriage, infidelity, social status and relationship advice.
Newlyweds are known to wear certain print designs after the fabric is given to the bride as a gift at her wedding ceremony.
Women may also wear certain motifs to show a man that she likes him. For example, there is a print design that features many eyes, which has been named ‘Lustful Eyes’ in Ivory Coast.
The below fabric design is called ‘Advice’ in Ivory Coast because it resembles women giving relationship advice to their daughters.
It is also called ‘Macaroni’ in Benin as the design looks like pasta shapes! What do you see when you look at this print?
The ‘Advice’ or ‘Macaroni’ fabric design (photo credit: Vlisco)
Education is very important to many families in Africa as unemployment among young people is often high and elders usually depend on the income of their grown up children.
Some parents hope that their children will become lawyers or doctors and will put all their savings into paying for a good education.
The ‘ABC’ or ‘Alphabet’ print in Nigeria tells others that the person wearing the fabric is educated; they attended school and can read and write.
It also symbolises that the wearer believes that education is very important for their children and saves money to cover their tuition fees.
The ‘Alphabet’ or ‘ABC’ fabric design
Other print designs can resemble items such as fans and roller-blades, music, myths, public figures (examples include Kofi Annan’s Brain, Michelle Obama’s Bag and Nkrumah’s Pencil, the first President of Ghana), technology, wealth and women’s beauty.
Different fabric designs can be suitable for different projects. For example, one print may be suitable to make African print shirts for men but not African print pencil skirts.
This also applies if you would like to make your own: hair accessories, handbags, jewellery, curtains, lampshades, cushion covers, bunting, bed sheets, table covers and napkins using the African print fabric.
The fabric is incredibly versatile and can be used to make lots of different items so what you use the fabric for is entirely up to you! For more great ankara fabric project ideas visit our blog.
While you are here why not browse Kitenge’s colourful African wax print fabric collection online.
Kitenge is a social enterprise that empowers Tanzanian tailors to improve their livelihoods one colourful garment at a time. Since the brand launched in 2014, Kitenge has supported many small businesses in Tanzania as all raw materials are locally sourced.
Kitenge’s ultimate goal is to open a sewing academy and business hub for young people to teach them valuable skills and help them to find employment within the local textile industry or support them in starting their own businesses.
In 2019, the unique ethical clothing brand launched a new made to measure clothes online service including custom made shirts, African print trousers, made to measure shorts and pencil skirts so that customers can design their own garments that fit perfectly.
After receiving lots of interest from all over the world, Kitenge started to sell their high quality, original African print fabric on their African boutique online in early 2020. The premium fabric is produced in Nigeria, West Africa, using 100% locally grown cotton.
Their beautiful fabric is available to purchase in 1 to 6 yards pieces so they can cut your desired length to avoid wastage. There may also be some fat quarters available, which are leftover from their African print clothing production.
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