African Prints Make Life colourful

By Michael Kachitsa

African wax prints, also known as Ankara and Dutch wax prints, are omnipresent and common materials for clothing in Africa, especially West Africa. They are industrially produced, colorful cotton cloths with batik-inspired printing. One feature of these materials is the lack of difference in the color intensity of the front and back sides. The wax fabric can be sorted into categories of quality due to the processes of manufacturing.

Normally, the fabrics are sold in 12 yards (11 m) as “full piece” or 6 yards (5.5 m) as “half piece”. The colors comply with the local preferences of the customers. Mainly clothing for celebrations is made out of these.

The wax prints are part of a nonverbal way of communication among African women, and hereby they carry their message out into the world. Some wax prints can be named after personalities, cities, building, sayings or occasions. The producer, name of the product and registration number of the design is printed on the selvage, protecting the design and allowing reading the quality of the fabric. The wax fabrics constitute capital goods for African women. Therefore, they are collected depending on the financial possibilities.

In Sub-Saharan Africa these textiles have an annual sales volume of 2.1 billion yards, with an average production cost of $2.6 billion and retail value of $4 billion.

The process to make wax print is originally influenced by batik, an Indonesian (Javanese) method of dyeing cloth by using wax-resist techniques. For batik, wax is melted and then patterned across the blank cloth. From there, the cloth is soaked in dye, which is prevented from covering the entire cloth by the wax. If additional colors are required, the wax-and-soak process is repeated with new patterns.

During the Dutch colonization of Indonesia, Dutch merchants and administrators became familiar with the batik technique. Thanks to this contact, the owners of textile factories in the Netherlands, such as Jean Baptiste Theodore Prévinaire and Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen, received examples of batik textiles by the 1850s if not before, and started developing machine printing processes which could imitate batik. They hoped that these much cheaper machine-made imitations could outcompete the original batiks in the Indonesian market, effecting the look of batik without all the labor-intensive work required to make the real thing