There’s no denying the beauty and global popularity of African wax print fabrics (see some examples on our African print dresses). They are bold and eye-catching, with such intricate patterns that it's hard to imagine how someone else had the imagination to create such a detailed design... or the patience to see the production process through from beginning to end (I know I just couldn’t: I get lose tolerance simply waiting for the kettle to boil!)
When it comes down to it though, what do we really know about African wax print fabrics? Could you spot the difference between a Batik and a Bogolan, or an Ankara and a Kente? The next time someone asks you this question we want you to reply with a resounding ‘yes!’, so here’s the lowdown.
Batik Waxed Fabric
Batik is a wax-resist dyeing technique, done by hand, which is perhaps most famous in Indonesia. It has been disputed where Batik fabric originates, as Batik fabric has been manufactured in Egypt, Syria, Nigeria, and Senegal. However, the technique always remains similar.
The artist (for what else is this intricate process but art?) draws a design on cloth, before going over it with wax using a 'canting' (a pen-like instrument that deposits wax in dots or lines), or, for larger areas, a stiff brush or a copper block stamp (a cap).
When the wax dries, color is added to required areas but color cannot penetrate the fabrics in places where there is wax (unless ‘crackling occurs, which allows lines of color to come through on resisted areas and creates a completely unique design). When the cloth dries, the wax is removed by boiling or scraping.
The process can be repeated multiple times – adding more wax and more color – until the desired complexity of pattern and color is achieved. Batiks produced using the fine canting tool can take up to a year to complete!
Watch the Batik Process.
Or Watch Vlogger Hayat Gutti make Batik patterns using leather.
African Wax Print Fabric
Also known as Ankara or Dutch wax prints, African wax prints are made using a wax-resist technique that stems from Batik but is produced industrially using the Dutch wax method. Genuine African wax prints are famed for being the same colors on both sides of the fabric.
Once the designs are created, they are transferred onto two copper printing rollers which, dripping in wax, transfer the pattern (to both sides). The fabric is then dipped in an indigo bath and the non-waxed sections become bright blue.
Then, the cloth is swished around in the unique machine to remove some of the wax, revealing plain fabric beneath. Once the cloth is dry, the coloring process begins. When the desired design is achieved, the fabric is washed to remove excess colors and inspected to ensure it meets genuine African wax print standards.
Also known as Bògòlanfini or "mud cloth", Bogolan is a handmade cotton fabric where different types of mud containing various minerals and pigments are used to create fantastic colors for hand painted designs. Today, pigments are also taken from other natural products.
The process starts with the cloth being soaked in a tannic tea made from leaves and branches. Once dry, is then painted with all the different colors of the mud that have been curing for some time. Stencils, which are usually carved, are used for the addition of patterns and symbols that tell stories about the community.
Check out the traditional prodution of African Mudcloth Fabric with Vlogger
Kente – from a word meaning basket - is a fabric made of interwoven cloth strips that is native to south Ghana. The woven strips boast multicolored patterns, geometric shapes and bold designs. Known as a ceremonial cloth, many modern day African Americans participate in a tradition called the ‘donning of the Kente’, when a graduate is presented with a Kente stole for their ceremony.
The cloth is woven on a narrow wooden structure and different colors are used to produce the bright patterns and shapes. Watch a Gahanian weaver.
What do the colors mean in Kente Cloth?
How is Kente Cloth (fabric) made?
And there you have it. Four very different procedures but all offering the same result: beautiful, traditional fabrics with symbolism and meaning throughout their respective countries or regions, that always bring joy to people around the world.
Have you ever tried to produce any wax print or mud cloth fabric at home? It would be difficult to achieve the results the experts get but it would definitely be fun! Let us know in the comments. Check out some of our awesome new African wax prints on our new in page, or have a look at Grass-fields designs on our Instagram page.