The history and hidden meanings of African Wax Print Cloth


African wax print fabric is bold and beautiful and it has a great story behind its origins and how it has developed to be an integral part of West African culture and fashion. We are often asked where we buy our African print cloth and how the fabric is produced so here’s a juicy little blog  post to answer some of those questions!

THE HISTORY OF AFRICAN WAX PRINT CLOTH

Although Africa does have a rich history of textile production the origins of this brightly coloured cloth which is now thought of as synonymous with Africa actually began with batik fabric in Indonesia. Batik is a hand printed dying technique that uses wax and coloured dyes to create patterns on cotton fabric. You can find out more about Batik in our blog here. Indonesia was colonised by the Dutch and around the 1850’s dutch merchants saw an opportunity to mass-produce and trade batik fabrics. They sought to mechanicalize the labour intensive process of printing and dying so that larger quantities could be produced and sold. However, their plan didn’t exactly go to plan as the machine produced cloth wasn’t popular amongst the Indonesian population as it didn’t have the same hand made quality as their own batik.

The Dutch used block printing machines, giant engraved copper rollers and a waxy resin which was printed onto each side of the cotton to resist the dye in certain areas, creating a distinctive pattern. Initially these ‘wax print’ or ‘ankara’ fabrics were produced in Europe, especially in Holland, although now they are also produced in Africa. VLISCO is the most widely known Dutch wax print textile manufacturer and they have dominated the market since the late 1800’s until today, producing wax print fabrics in Holland and also owning companies such as GTP and ATL which manufacture textiles in Ghana. You can find out more about VLISCO and African wax print textile production in this short BBC video.

AFRICAN WAX PRINT

So how did batik make its way from Indonesia to West Africa? The Dutch would pass around the vast landmass of Africa on their route between Indonesia and Europe, stopping to refuel, purchase supplies and trade. They quickly realised that their machine produced wax print cloth was more popular in Sub-Saharan Africa than Indonesia and so they began to adapt their designs and colours to suit the tastes of the African market. Ghana played a pivotal role in promoting this new cloth because Ghanaians were the first Africans to get in touch with the print, thereby fusing it with African art, culture and fashion before it spread to other West African countries. Ghana’s traditional hand-woven kente cloth has also inspired many of the colours and patterns of wax print cloth designs which are very popular throughout West Africa today. We use lots of these bold geometric kente prints for our African print shirts, festival jackets and dungarees

KENTE FESTIVAL DUNGAREES

THE MEANING BEHIND THE PRINTS

The designs that make African wax print cloth so interesting are not only colourful and jazzy but they often tell a story or send a message about their wearer. Many prints in Ghana have local Akan proverbs attached to them, offering a non-verbal form of communication between the person wearing the cloth and the people around them. According to Dr. Kwesi Yankah, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Ghana, they are used "not just to praise political heroes, to commemorate historical events, and to assert social identities, but also as a form of rhetoric - a channel for the silent projection of argument.” This is especially important amongst Ghanaian women. The cloth names and meanings have evolved over time, stories often being passed around the market women and their customers, a great selling tactic! Keep on reading to find out the meanings of the prints we use for Ashanti Empress clothing. 

SOURCING OUR FABRICS

Usually ankara wax print fabrics are sold in 12 yard pieces (full piece) or 6 yards (half piece). This means we have to scour the many fabric isles of Kejetia market, the biggest outdoor market in West Africa, looking for the perfect prints to make Ashanti Empress clothing. There are hundreds of small shops, mainly owned and run by women, selling more colourful fabric than you could ever imagine. We buy all of our fabric directly from these women. Often it is difficult to find large quantities of the same fabric which means all of our clothing is limited edition, with only a few items being created in each print.

One hot and sweaty afternoon when I was shopping for new prints in Kejetia market I stopped by the shop of a good friend and material trader Ma Grace to find out more about the meanings behind some of the most popular prints I see in Ghana and also some of the prints we use in our African print clothing.

THE MEANING BEHIND THE PRINTS WE USE

Sika Wo Antaban

Money has wings is the translation for this fabric. Money indeed flies where it wants to go. If you don't handle it well, it will fly from you. 

We used this beautiful fabric for our Fly to Freedom Bomber Jackets and Tracksuit trousers. 

ankara fabric

 

Highlife

This fabric represents the most popular genre of music in Ghana, highlife. This genre is loved by many due to the originality and quality of sound produced by most highlife musicians.

We use this amazing print for our popular Highlife Shirts and hats.

Ankara highlife fabric

Nsubra

An Akan word for well. The tiny dots which are in a spiral form resemble the ripples made in a well after water is fetched from it or when a stone is dropped into its depths. This is one of the trending fabrics in Ghana and worldwide and it comes in lots of different colours.

We use it for our Psychedelic Cedi dresses. 

ankara fabric

Aniwa

This is the Akan word for Eye. The meaning behind this print is to be careful with your actions. Although people may be silent, they are watching you when you do something wrong! It can also mean that God watches the world. 

We use this watchful eye print for our Easy on the Eye shirts and shorts.

ankara fabric

Efie mmosea

This translates to English as gravel because the design in it looks like small stones. The proverbial meaning behind it is that if your sister or a relative hurts you, it is more painful than an outsider.

We use this print for our Laughing Leopard shirts and shorts.

So now you know, African print cloth isn’t just cool and colourful, its steeped in centuries of history, stories, tradition and meaning! At Ashanti Empress we use this beautiful cloth as a means of creating reliable, well-paid employment and training opportunities for the tailors we work with in Ghana, empowering them to grow their own fashion businesses. You can find out more about how buying Ashanti Empress clothing directly benefits the tailors we work with and also the community in Ghana on our about page.

ASHANTI EMPRESS TAILORS

Here's a few interesting articles about the history of African print fabrics and the meanings behind the designs on wax print clothing if you want to find out more.  

https://enam98.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/names-meaning-of-african-print/

https://afrolegends.com/2013/05/17/history-of-african-fabrics-and-textiles/

https://www.naaoyooquartey.com/ganyobinaa/do-you-know-the-meaning-of-the-designs-on-your-waxprint-clothing/4/13/2015


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