African wax print fabric (commonly known as ‘Kitenge’ in East Africa and ‘Ankara’ in West Africa) stands out amongst the rest due to its brightly colored patterns, interesting designs, and hidden meanings. The beautiful fabrics are largely associated with African culture because of their tribal patterns, symbols, and motifs.
Kitenge fabric is well-loved worldwide because the bright colors help to make people feel instantly happier and uplifted. It’s fun to wear these cheerful fabrics just as they are or when transformed into traditional and modern African print clothing.
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Kitenge Store’s African print clothing dazzled the catwalk at AfroFest, Bristol, UK (Credit: Watson Media)
The process of making authentic African print fabric is highly respected as a craft and a labor-intensive art form. There are many different steps in production. First of all, raw cotton yarns are spun into woven grey cloth, before being bleached white and stretched to the right width (usually approximately 46 inches).
Cotton yarns are woven by machine to produce grey cloth
A digitally produced design is engraved onto copper rollers, which are printed onto both sides of the cloth using melted wax. The cloth is put inside an indigo dye bath where the exposed parts of the design are dyed and the wax areas are resisted.
Special machinery may then crack the wax to create a marble or bubble effect. Large industrial machines print usually two or three colors onto the fabric design before and/or after the wax is removed by washing. The removed wax is recycled and used again for future fabric production. Different finishes can be applied to the cloth, which is often what makes the fabric more expensive.
Unfortunately, it can sometimes be hard to find authentic wax print fabric produced in Europe and Africa amongst the many cheaper fabric imitations produced mainly in Asia. Whether you are shopping for fabric in a market, in shops, or online, what should you look out for when searching for the real deal? What does imitation wax print fabric look like and how can you tell the difference between the two?
Kitenge Store’s Founder, Sian, sourcing authentic Ankara fabric at the market
First of all, it’s important to give you some background information about the history of the fabric to provide some context. Wax print fabric originated in Indonesia from traditional batik making. Europeans further developed the technique by using modern machinery so they could produce imitation fabric in bulk.
The new fabric didn’t take off in Indonesia, as they preferred the traditional batik fabrics. However, the fabric did become popular in Africa, when first introduced by West African soldiers in the 1880s as they returned home after serving in Indonesia.
Currently, the Netherlands and several African countries are still large producers of these authentic fabrics. Due to the popularity of the fabrics in Africa, Asian countries (particularly China and India) now replicate and ship the fabrics to many African countries in huge volumes.
Chinese-produced Ankara fabrics displayed in an African market
The imitation fabrics are usually poor quality and sold at a cheaper price than the authentic fabrics. The Asian producers are known for copying some of the well-known designs, making it very difficult for the companies making authentic fabric to compete!
It takes Asian-based manufacturers 1 to 3 months to copy an authentic fabric design so speed to market is really important for African and European manufacturers of authentic, high-quality wax print fabrics to compete. Some authentic fabric manufacturers add a unique code to the selvage of their fabrics so customers can check if it’s authentic or not.
The well-known ‘record’ or ‘gramophone’ design (authentic fabric) and the same popular design but counterfeit fabric printed in Asia.
Many Africans prefer to purchase Asian-produced fabrics because they are more affordable. They also need to pay a tailor to make a garment so the cheaper fabrics have made wax prints more popular and easily accessible. The more expensive authentic fabrics are usually purchased in smaller quantities for special occasions such as weddings and birthdays and given as gifts.
The huge competition from Asian manufacturers has caused some textile mills in Africa to close causing local people to lose their jobs, which greatly impacts their livelihoods. These factory closures are causing the textile industry in African countries to decline, which is so vital for a country’s economy. The closure of factories also has a negative impact on their supply chain including African farmers that grow the cotton used to make the fabric.
There are several ways that you can tell the difference between authentic and imitation wax. It’s much easier to tell the difference if you can see and touch the fabrics in a market or store compared to online. Here are our top tips on what to look out for!
The price is usually one of the first signs that can help you to determine if the fabric is authentic or not. Imitation fabric can be half the price or even more! If you’re new to shopping for African print fabric we recommend doing your research and shopping around first so you can easily compare.
Simply touching the fabric can give you a good indication of the type of quality. If the fabric feels soft and flexible then it could be authentic wax. If the fabric feels harsh, hard, and stiff like paper or even cardboard then it could be imitation fabric. Also, check that the fabric design is printed on both sides of the fabric.
A cotton field before harvesting
Most of the Asian-produced fabrics are not 100% cotton even if they are advertised as such. They use cheaper grades of cotton or mix the cotton with other fibers such as polyester to reduce the price. This is one reason why the quality of imitation wax is usually less than authentic fabrics.
On the other hand, authentic fabrics are usually made from pure, higher quality 100% cotton sourced locally in the same or neighboring countries. This is why some authentic fabrics feel softer and are more comfortable to wear. Authentic fabrics are usually highly durable as they wash very well in the machine and the colorfastness is excellent compared to imitation wax.
From our experience, there are several small signs to look out for that can tell you instantly. The names of well-known manufacturers may be spelled differently, for example, ‘Disco’ instead of ‘Vlisco’. On the fabric stickers, the logos and branding of European and African manufacturers may also be copied but do not look completely the same. The stickers may also contain Asian phone numbers so check the country codes, for example, +86 for China.
You can also carry out some research so that you can easily spot the names of well-known Asian fabric manufacturers such as Hitarget, Flygle, Orientar, and Sunbelt all from China. Also, don’t be fooled when you see words such as: ‘guaranteed’, ‘real’, ‘original, ‘superior’, and ‘deluxe’ on the fabric selvage or on the stickers. We’ve also heard that if you lick the fabric the taste of the two is very different!
If you feel passionate about supporting the African textile industry and prefer to shop for quality over quantity then be safe and stick to the businesses that know best. If you have followed our above advice and are still not sure (especially for online retailers) then contact the businesses to ask them some questions.
You could even ask them to send you a photo of the fabric selvage and stickers to help you to investigate further. If they are an honest, transparent, and reputable company then they should have no problem providing you with this information. Kitenge Store stands out because one of our main values is to always purchase 100% premium, authentic Ankara fabrics sourced only from the African continent to support the textile industry.
Kitenge Store’s Founder, Sian, with one of our fabric suppliers (a female-owned small enterprise)
Kitenge Store’s high-quality fabrics, printed in Nigeria, have largely contributed to the success of our African print clothing and made to measure garments! Our customers always tell us how much they love our clothing, how comfortable it is, and how the fabrics look as good as new so many years later. This is why so many of our customers have come back to us time and time again.
Read our story to learn why our social enterprise and ethical clothing brand exists and see our customer reviews.
If you’re looking to purchase authentic African wax print fabric or modern Afrocentric clothing browse our African boutique online today! Our Ankara fabric shop contains some beautiful bold colors and one-of-a-kind designs. The high-quality fabrics can be purchased by the yard (1 to 6) so you can avoid fabric wastage by only purchasing what you need. We also sell fabric fat quarters leftover from our clothing production to minimize waste.
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Be sure to check out our blog for inspiration on what you could make at home with the fabric including interior design ideas. We’ve also got some helpful wash care advice so that the fabric stays cleaner and fresher for longer!
What’s also great about purchasing from Kitenge Store is that we’re a caring social enterprise so each purchase directly benefits our tailors, who lovingly handcraft our made to measure garments in their own workshops, and the small businesses in Tanzania where we locally source our raw materials from.
Kitenge Store menswear tailor, Emile, making a custom-made African print shirt by hand in Tanzania
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