The Story Behind African Wax Print Cloth

I came across these African Wax Prints a while ago and fell in love with them. They are so full of colour and meaning that I had to find out the story behind them…

Originally, the wax resist dyed fabrics came from Indonesia which were then exported to the Gold Coast and spread over West Africa into Central Africa. They became extremely popular and over time the Africans customised and personalised the designs. Nowadays they are primarily made in Ghana and have strong cultural, social and economic importance.

The patterns tell stories of relevance to the wearer, such as proverbs, poems and traditional African fables. The colours also hold significance as they can represent social standing, age, tribal orientation and marital status. One example (left) is a cloth carrying the proverb “Ahonnee pa nkasa”. Literally translated this means: Precious beads make no noise. That is, empty barrels make the most noise or a good person needs not blow his own horns.

Last year, I was given this fabric (below) as a gift from a friend who visited Central/West Africa. This cloth was made for the celebration of National Women’s Day (08 March 2007).

What I love most about these cloths is that they have more significance than simply surface value.

(See the Tulip Bag made using this Traditional African Wax Print)

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22 Responses to “The Story Behind African Wax Print Cloth”

  1. Steffi July 10, 2008 at 11:04 am #

    Wendren, this a very beautiful south african fabrics! I would like buy some fabrics if I where there too. I hope Anne can buy to me some metres of such fabrics as souvenir when she come back from S.A. ;O))!

  2. marian July 12, 2008 at 12:00 pm #

    What i find fascinating, and interesting, is to learn that behind the beautiful patterns and colors (which is what initially made these fabrics attractive to me), is that there is a whole symbolic deal going on behind them. Quite an anthropological trip to find and buy these fabrics!

    Very interesting post.

  3. July 14, 2008 at 3:28 pm #

    You only really have half the story….
    The wax dye resist fabric is called Batik, and while it did originate from Indonesia, was actually first taken back to Europe, the Netherlands specifically, by the Dutch VOC trading company. The Dutch manufacturers later moved their factories to England. Batik was then exported to the West African colonies by the English as a cheap fabric source, and since become synonymous with West Africa.

  4. wendren July 14, 2008 at 4:09 pm #

    I try my best to collect as much info as I can but often I miss important facts and I appreciate the help. Thanks.
    The part that confused me is that no longer is wax print fabric a typical Batik. Often that ‘crackle’ effect is printed and and even more often the ‘crackle’ effect that makes it a ‘Batik’ is not present. I have found several fabrics that have a wax layer over and on the wax there is a separate design. I do not know this as a Batik. African Wax Print fabric, to me, seems to have become a mix of print and dye methods and techniques from various origins. The fabrics that celebrate events also have a wax coating (called Dutch Wax which collaborates with your story) however, it is also not a Batik by traditional definitions.
    I hope I have not offended you in anyway with my confusion or lack of info in the post. I do the best I can and as I have explained, I was rather confused about the fabrics classification and decided to keep the background to the basic facts that made sense and were most reliable.
    Wendren

  5. wendren July 14, 2008 at 4:17 pm #

    Also…. see

    African Batik Cloth:
    http://www.anansevillage.com//index.php?cPath=41_63&osCsid=9e0f3fcd03943e9f1617bc7da41f6908

    Wax Print:
    http://www.anansevillage.com//index.php?cPath=41_80&osCsid=9e0f3fcd03943e9f1617bc7da41f6908

    Perhaps this will make more clear the difference between a wax print and a batik.

  6. December 12, 2008 at 9:00 pm #

    Wax prints are the most expensive variant of the colorful African prints you describe. They are industrial versions of the Indonesian batik cloth, including the use of wax. Imiwax is the name for the cloth you refer to as having no crackle or a printed crackle effect. These textiles are made by applying color without the use of wax (roller printed). The largest producers of this cloth used to be based in Nigeria, but the Chinese have taken over that segment of the market.

    Fancy prints are a collection of roller printed cloth of which commemorative designs are an important element.

    Finally, the Dutch factories never moved to England, but the two main manufacturers merged into one, Vlisco BV in Helmond. In Engeland, the production of wax prints has virtually disappeared. It moved to Akosombo Textiles Limited in Ghana. The two other main West African factories are owned by the Dutch company and based in Tema, Ghana, and Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.

  7. January 27, 2009 at 4:47 pm #

    Robin,
    You seem to know a lot! As someone who is interested in purchasing fancy prints for a textile business-for-good venture (I discovered the undervalued beauty of African textiles when I lived in Tanzania. I now work with refugees in Thailand and am having a new textile love affair).
    Makenzie

  8. January 28, 2009 at 12:27 am #

    The two fabrics given to you by some one from who visited West Africa I believe came from Republic of Cameroon. I can recognize the design and the names of the provinces written in French. I am amazed at the origin of the wax cloth. Very informative site. i love wax cloth.

  9. Dayo July 1, 2009 at 1:39 am #

    African wax fabrics is a popular trend in Nigeria, it’s popular due to our warm weather climate.

    Lately so many contemporary designs have sprung up, that is featured on runways across the globe.

    I love the fabric 100% cotton.

  10. kulchababy September 5, 2009 at 5:46 am #

    I loved the very informative posts. seems like the origin of the wax prints are just as mis-stated as the origins of the dashiki. check out the offerings at ladyfingahs.etsy.com. great info…thanks

  11. September 18, 2009 at 4:48 pm #

    Thanks for the information. A lot of African clothing and jewelry often have meaning attached to them. It is good to have an idea of what one is wearing and how and when to wear them. Western influence has diluted our African styles and patterns, but the authenticity of a good number of patterns still remains.

  12. Miriam October 31, 2009 at 2:16 pm #

    I own a dressmaking business in West Africa (although I am Scottish). The wax prints are beautiful and versatile – and have the added benefit of being 100% cotton. Unfortunately the indigenous textile printing industry in Ghana is suffering due to cheap Chinese imported copies of popular prints. Where there used to be around 27 or so factories printing cloth in Ghana, there now probably only around 3 of any great prominence.

    We also hand-print batik using wax, wooden block prints and dyes to create our own unique patterns on cotton.

    I am so happy to see more designers tap into the versatility of under-utilised West African fabrics.

    Today I am wearing a dress covered in blue pineapples and it makes me smile!

    As other observers noted, there is great significance attached to the cloth one wears. I often have tourists bring funeral cloth into my shop (which is traditionally black/red/brown) not realising what it symbolises – they just like the prints!

  13. Yvette November 1, 2009 at 8:02 am #

    ABOSOLUTELY GORGEOUS! These fabrics are such a festive, bold and positive celebration of Africa’s spirit.

    We use these fabrics to design UNIFORMS for various small hotels and game lodges in Southern Africa. We believe uniforms don’t need to be purely functional but can be empowering and beautiful as well!!!

    We usually have to buy the wax prints from retailers which make them more expensive – does anyone know of a wholesale supplier of these fabrics in South Africa ?

    Yvette

  14. Yvette November 1, 2009 at 8:06 am #

    Forgot to say – you have such an inspiring stuning blog and products:-)

  15. Suschna November 10, 2009 at 12:51 pm #

    I just wrote about african wax prints in my blog, and I found this explanation of the history from the point of view of the dutch company: http://www.vlisco.com/Timeline
    I like your blog and your work very much, thank you!

  16. December 21, 2009 at 12:16 am #

    The African prints are unique in many ways. The patterns do have meaning in different parts of Africa. The black ,brown and red prints used in some ethic groups as morning clothes have no meaning in others. Tourists who buy these clothes based how the fabric looks and feels, I believe have no idea of what the cultural implications are and so the faux pas are excusable.

    Chinese reproduction of these cloth for he sake of mass production and making the authentic cloth merchants to close down is sad. The Chinese need to be called to order on how they cheapen the cultural and economic aspects of countries with less aggressive money making industries such as China.

  17. Karen February 13, 2010 at 9:40 am #

    Hello everyone!

    I fell in love with African wax print cloth on a trip to Nigeria in the early 90s. Now I have just started selling African imported products through my website and have been getting questions about caring for garments made from the wax print cloth and African brocade fabrics, which also have the “stiffness” of being waxed. Can these fabrics be laundered normally? Are they best dry cleaned? Is the wax coating removed when they are washed or cleaned? Do they retain their waxed “stiffness” with wear?

    Thanks for all the good information!

  18. wendren February 15, 2010 at 6:52 am #

    Hi Karen,

    I think you are a bit confused about the wax print. The design is wax printed and when sold it no longer has a wax surface. You can still feel that the cloth has been worked with wax but this is very slight. You can launder the fabric normally and they are not stiff.

    Shweshwe fabric (see http://thewww.thewrendesign.com/2008/03/06/the-shweshwe-story/) has a starch surface and this is stiff. However, after one or two washes this stiffness is lost and the fabric is a soft cotton.

    I hope this helps clarify,
    Wendren

  19. May 17, 2010 at 5:32 pm #

    Very interesting page regarding African wax prints.

  20. June 22, 2010 at 10:27 pm #

    Hello, I enjoyed reading about the fabrics. My daughter has been living in the Congo and she brought home about 20 different african wax prints. I have been a great time making accessories out of them. She also brought home the fabric printed for the 2010 national women’s day!

  21. August 10, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this information it is most interesting. I have taken the liberty of using some of your knowledge for my textile research as part of my degree course in the UK.

  22. October 21, 2014 at 1:47 pm #

    My daughter learnt about the wax print cloth during her ART AS Level as she decided to do a project on Africa. She really enjoyed the theme and decided to make a dress out of wax cotton which also incorporated Origami. One thing led to another, and to cut the story short, she was admitted (at only 17) to show her collection on the catwalk of Belfast Fashion Show.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6e324mAKD4M&feature=youtu.be

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