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 coloured 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 colours help to make people feel instantly happier and uplifted. It is fun to wear these cheerful fabrics just as they are or when transformed into traditional and modern African print clothing.
Kitenge’s African print clothing dazzling 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 labour-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 colours 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 counterfeit 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 fake African print fabric look like and how can you easily tell the difference between the two?
Kitenge’s Founder, Sian, shopping for authentic ankara fabric at the market
First of all, it is 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 quantities.
Chinese produced ankara fabrics at an African market
The Asian-produced fabrics are usually of poor quality and sold at a much cheaper price than the original fabrics. They also copy the original designs, making it very difficult for the companies making authentic fabric to compete!
It takes Asian-based manufactures 1 to 3 months to copy an authentic fabric design so speed to market is really important for African and European manufacturers of authentic 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 is real or fake.
The well known ‘record’ or ‘gramophone’ design (authentic fabric)
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 factories 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 easily tell the difference between real and fake wax.
It is 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 the first sign that can help you to determine if the fabric is original or not. Counterfeit fabric can be half the price or even more!
If you are 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 really good indication of the type of quality. If the fabric feels soft and flexible then it could well be authentic wax.
If the fabric feels harsh, hard, and stiff like paper or even cardboard then chances are it is fake.
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 fibres such as polyester to reduce the price. This is one reason why the quality of counterfeit wax is far less than authentic fabrics.
On the other hand, authentic fabrics are made from pure, higher quality 100% cotton usually sourced locally in the same or neighbouring countries.
A cotton field before harvesting
This is why the fabric feels a lot softer and is more comfortable to wear. It is also long-lasting as it washes very well in the machine and the colourfastness is excellent compared to fake wax.
Also, check that the fabric design is printed on both sides of the fabric.
From our experience, there are several small signs to look out for that can tell you instantly. First of all, on the selvage of the fabric it might say ‘made as…’ or ‘made for…’ instead of ‘made in…’ before the country name.
The names of known manufactures may be spelled differently, for example, ‘Disco’ instead of ‘Vlisco’.
On the fabric stickers, the logos and branding of a known manufacturer 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 who 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 in providing you with this information.
Kitenge Store stands out because one of our main values is to always purchase 100% 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
Our 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 colours and fabulous designs. The premium fabrics can be purchased by the yard (1 to 6) so you can avoid fabric wastage by only purchasing what you need.
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 make our clothing by hand 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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