May 13, 2020 - Fabric & Sewing

The Many Styles of African Wax Print Fabric

A pile of African wax print fabric

There are many different styles, designs, and colors 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 color than the Nigerian African wax print fabric, which tends to use darker tones.

Browse Our Range of African Wax Print Fabric

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 on special occasions such as weddings.

Did you know there are Ankara fabric designs that 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.

African wax print fabric made in China market shop Tanzania

Shelves in an African wax print fabric shop

Continue reading to learn more about the hidden meanings behind the different colorful designs.

The History of African Wax Print Fabric

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 1800s, 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 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 their association with African culture because of their tribal patterns and motifs.

Find out more about the history of African print fabric.

Certain colors and designs can reflect local traditions, customs, and symbols such as marriage. Some women use the fabrics as a non-verbal way of communication. There are plenty of different styles of African print fabric to explore!

What’s in a Design?

African Animal Print Fabric

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 wandering around streets and houses freely.


Men's Peacock African Print Long Sleeve Shirt worn by a model on the beach in Tanzania

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 is 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.


Red and yellow ankara fabric design


African print fabric designs may also include snails, fish, horses, lions, leopards, and even spiders! For example, a fabric design that features tortoises can symbolize patience, strength, and determination.

A tortoise symbolises patience strength and determination when featured in ankara fabric designs

African Tribal Print Fabric

In Tanzania alone, there are over 200 tribes each with its 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.

Traditional tribal houses are featured in African print fabric designs

A traditional tribal house built in Tanzania

An example of a tribal fabric design is called ‘Village Molokai’, which is popular in 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.

African print fabric tribal village design by Vlisco

‘Village Molokai’ tribal print fabric (photo credit: Vlisco)

African Floral Print

Floral motifs are popular in many African countries. In Ghana, if women wear a certain leaf motif in a blue colorway then they are non-verbally communicating to others that they are pregnant. Some designs of floral African print fabric symbolize happiness in a marriage and may be given to the 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.


 Orange and pink African print fabric pattern Green and blue floral African wax print fabric design

Different Nigerian floral African wax print designs

African Print Family 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.


Yellow pineapple authentic African wax print fabric


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 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.

Record disc ankara fabric design

The popular ‘record’ or ‘gramophone’ design

African Print Relationship Designs

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?

Ankara fabric design by Vlisco about relationship advice

The ‘Advice’ or ‘Macaroni’ fabric design (photo credit: Vlisco)

African Fabric Education

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 symbolizes that the wearer believes that education is very important for their children and saves money to cover their tuition fees.

ABC alphabet ankara fabric print design from West Africa

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 Designs for Different Projects 

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.

Men's green blue African print shirt long sleeves model wearing  Model wearing women's blue African print pencil skirt custom made by Kitenge Store


This also applies if you would like to make your own: hair accessories, handbags, jewelry, curtains, lampshades, cushion covers, bunting, bed sheets, table covers, and napkins using African print fabric.

African wax print fabric sofa cushion covers fabric for interior design  African wax print fabric bunting African interior design

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.

Shop Kitenge’s Original African Wax Print Fabric

While you are here why not browse Kitenge’s colorful African wax print fabric collection online? Kitenge is a social enterprise that empowers Tanzanian tailors to improve their livelihoods. Since the ethical clothing brand launched in 2014, Kitenge has supported many small businesses in Tanzania as the majority of raw materials are locally sourced. Their ultimate goal is to open a sewing academy and business hub for disadvantaged Tanzanian women 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, Kitenge 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, authentic African print wax fabrics in their African boutique online in 2020. Their premium fabrics are produced in Nigeria, West Africa, using 100% locally grown cotton.


Authentic African wax print fabric designs by Kitenge Store


Their beautiful fabrics are 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. Get 10% off your first order when you subscribe to Kitenge’s newsletter!

Shop Kitenge Fabric
Share Tweet Pin


Mailing List

Sign up to get 10% off your first order!