Textiles of the World: Ankara Fabrics

Hi sewcialists!

I am happy to share my first post here with you! How cool is it that we get to chat about fabrics this month? One fabric that gets me excited every time I see it is Ankara fabrics (also known as African wax print or Dutch wax print). Whether I see it on my feed, or I cross someone wearing a garment made out of Ankara, it always brings me joy. You may wonder why this fabric gets me so excited. Let me share a little background story so you get a better understanding. 

Full-length photo of a person in a below the knee length dress made of Ankara fabric in teal, dark pink and other colors

I’m an Afro-Canadian from Caribbean descent. I was actually born in Montreal and never visited my parents home country (Haiti). Being from the Caribbean comes with its load of issues regarding identity. I won’t get into all of it here but basically, Caribbean people tend to dissociate themselves from their African roots. I, however, feel close to those roots. I haven’t had the chance to visit the Motherland (Africa) and I truly hope to be able to visit the land of my ancestors one day. Ankara fabric is a way for me to connect with my roots while waiting to be able to do it in person.

Person in a short-sleeved top made of an Ankara print with purple, yellow and other colors

If we look at the history of Ankara fabrics, it is actually not authentic from Africa. According to various sources, it was originally manufactured by Dutch people for Indonesia. Batik is actually the fabric that inspired people to create Ankara. Batik fabrics are made using a technique of wax-resist dyeing (handmade). The Dutch found a way to manufacture Batik (machine-made) which would allow them to produce this fabric at a cheaper cost. However, the machine-made version came with imperfections. The Indonesians were not too excited with this version of the fabric but West Africans really loved the product. Quickly Ankara gained popularity in West Africa since the tribal-like print was very appealing to these populations. To make a long story short, they actually adopted this fabric as being theirs. 

Person in a knee-length dress made of Ankara print with yellow, pink and other colors.

Here is an excerpt of an article describing the printing process:

“The basic steps of African wax print fabric production include:

1) Melted, molten wax is printed by machine onto both sides of the cloth

2) The cloth is put into an indigo dye bath (the dye repels the wax covered areas of the fabric)

3) A machine cracks the wax to create a marbling and bubbles effect

4) Printing machines add two or three colours to the design

5) The cloth is washed (boiled) to remove the wax, which is recycled and reused

6) Different finishes are applied to the cloth

The manufacturer may also add one of the colours by block printing part of the design onto the fabric by hand.

Each batch of the same fabric design can look slightly different due to the varying colour tones and random marbling and bubbles effect.”

Source: https://kitengestore.com/everything-need-know-african-print-fabric/

Person in a sleeveless, knee-length dress made of an Ankara print with different blues and other colors

Just like the people from West Africa (which is where my ancestors are most likely from), when I see Ankara fabrics, it triggers something in me. Maybe it’s the bold, vibrant and colorful prints?

This machine-made fabric is made using 100% cotton fibers. It varies in quality due companies to using different cotton fibers and manufacturing processes.  I cannot describe the feeling but it is there. I do not have any Ankara fabrics in my stash at the moment. I actually made 2 garments out of Ankara fabrics in the past months. I need to restock very soon. 

Person in a knee-length dress made of an Ankara print with orange, red, teal and other colors

I am by no means an expert on Ankara history and will not attempt to explain how it is used by different tribes. I do not want to offend anyone by misinterpreting or explaining things the wrong way as an outsider. What I can say is that I’ve witnessed Nigerian weddings where the bride’s and groom’s family dress in beautiful matching Ankara prints for wedding related events. It is also part of gift-exchanges during the wedding festivities. African prints can also be viewed as a form of art or of expression. 

Check out this article for more in-depth information on African prints. The author Tino Motloung is from South Africa and shares a great amount of knowledge on this fabric!

Person in jeans, a T-shirt and a long jacket made of an Ankara print with yellow, burgundy and other colors

Let me leave you on one tip! When using Ankara fabric for the first time, you will notice a label. Do not try to rip it out right away. Instead do this:

  • Get you iron and set it on cotton
  • Place a scrap on to on top of the label
  • Heat up the label by moving the iron on top (I go 5 seconds at a time)
  • Peel the label
  • If you still have adhesive on your fabric, repeat passing the iron until you get it all out
  • Then wash and dry your fabric as you would wash any cotton fabric. 

I hope you enjoyed seeing Ankara fabrics through my lens.

Headshot of a person with a headwrap made of Ankara fabric with red, yellow and other colors

Judith Dee is the Canadian blogger behind Judith Dee’s World . She uses sewing as a way to escape reality when things get rough and anxiety starts to increase. She loves working with vibrant prints and colors. You can also find her on Youtube and Instagram.