What is African Wax Print fabric?

December 3, 2015

Chitenge from Malawi Africa

African Wax is definitely on-trend.  From the catwalk to the cool must-have-now style blogs, African prints are showing up in all the fashionable right places.  These unique fabrics come in unexpected color combinations and never-before-imagined motifs.  Roosters?  Razor Blades?  Roller skates?   All that and more has been inspiration for wax print designs.  If you like your fabric fun, you need look no further.

Chitenge honoring Hastings Kamuzu BandaA chitenge from Mapeto Whitex Fabric with an image of  Kamuzu Banda, the first President of Malawi.

But what is “African Wax Print” exactly?  When I first heard the term I envisioned hand-loomed textiles painstakingly waxed and dyed by skilled artisans. It surprised me to learn that “wax print” was actually a European invention made by machines.  A bit of research helped me understand the history behind the exclusive “genuine wax prints” sewn into elaborate dresses and their less glamorous relative; the hard-working chitenje “wrapper” worn by women across Africa.

First, some history.  African wax prints are traced back to traditional wax batiks created by artisans in Indonesia.  How these Indonesian batiks were first introduced to West Africa is not certain.  One popular story goes that West African men, enlisted as indentured soldiers in the Dutch East Indies during the mid 19th century, may have brought home traditional wax batiks as souvenirs.  But “wax print” as we know it today, didn’t reach Africa until the end of the 19th century, after a Belgian invented a machine for making wax batiks using engraved copper rollers and dye-resistant resins.

European textile factories began producing these new wax print batiks.  They were shipped to Indonesia, with hopes of finding a foreign market for this European product.  But it turned out that the Indonesians weren’t too keen on this manufactured batik style.  Europe had to look elsewhere for buyers.  It’s likely that “wax print” batiks were introduced to Africa when English, Dutch, and French ships headed back to Indonesia stopped over in West Africa on their journey.  Eventually, wax prints became popular across the continent.

These days,  mass-produced wax prints from China have flooded the market, lowering the price point and expanding the choice of design.  This multi-cultural history of the “wax print” has sparked debate over the true identity of the fabric.  Is it Indonesian? European? Chinese? African?  Maybe there is no right answer.

The most sought after African wax prints today are produced in Holland by a company called Vlisco.  Established in 1846, Vlisco is the last remaining wax print manufacturer in Europe.  Highly regarded wax prints made in Ghana include GTP, Woodin, ATL, and DaViva.  It’s interesting to note that all of these African wax companies are foreign-owned.  These exclusive brands are not sold for bargain prices in street stalls.  You’ll only find them in high-end fabric boutiques in Europe and Africa.

“But wait!”, you say.  “I bought Authentic Dutch Wax Print in the market.  And it was only $1 per meter.”

This brings me to the topic of the local chitenje, or “wrapper” worn by African women and loved by so many.  What should we call this ubiquitous fabric sold in the street markets?  Is it wax print? Is it real?

What is African Wax Print?On the selvage of these inexpensive fabrics you will find names like “True Wax”, “Real Wax”, “Authentic Wax”, “Dutch Wax”.  Vendors will probably tell you that their products are the real thing.  They might even have you bite the fabric, proving it is “genuine” by the taste.

The $1 per meter cloth you find in the market is bright and beautiful but it is not the celebrated “authentic” wax print produced in Holland or Ghana.  Most likely, this is a low quality cotton cloth that was roller printed on one side with an “African” design.  If you are lucky, you have found a locally produced fabric. Sadly, there are only a few textile weaving mills scattered around Africa today.  The vast majority of “African” textiles in the market are imported from Asia.  Even when textiles are printed locally, the cotton cloth is often from India or China, where it is much cheaper to produce.

Before you yell at me for ruining the party I have something to say.  It’s still bright and beautiful fun fabric.  Even if it’s not “real wax” from Ghana or Holland, it’s still part of the textile trade in Africa.  Let’s not forget that the original wax prints were European knock-offs of Indonesian designs.  In my opinion, designer “wax print” and the local printed chitenje are so deeply a part of the culture that they are African no matter where they came from.

Chitehge shopping in Malawi AfricaMy husband helping me choose some chitenje fabric in the local market.

What might be a concern is the quality of the fabric.  If you are paying $1 per meter (or less) for your cloth don’t expect top quality.  It’s amazing what can happen to a pretty piece of fabric after it’s washed.   That glossy coating on your chitenge isn’t wax.  It’s starch.  After washing, your bargain fabric is going to lose its shine and shrink.  And if you have a huge “genuine wax print” sticker glued to your fabric it will be a nightmare to get off.

I’ve never purchased “genuine” wax print fabric.  I want some, but it’s not available in this part of Africa.  One day I’ll get to Holland or West Africa and do some glamorous Vlisco African Wax shopping.  But I’m pretty sure I’ll always enjoy sewing the inexpensive chitenje fabrics available in my local market.  There are plenty of beautiful choices to keep me busy for a long, long time.

Chitenge from Mapeto Whitex in MalawiLocally made cotton chitenge fabric from Mapeto Whitex in Blantyre, Malawi

2 Comments

    1. Interesting post, I was aware of the Dutch produced fabric but didn’t know the history behind the african wax !! Thanks for taking the time to write this post!!

      1. Hi Aida,
        I’m so glad you liked the post! It was a fun one to write. My next post is about having a dress made in chitenge fabric. The local tailors in Malawi are famous for creating beautiful dresses with this bold and bright cloth.
        Cheers! Tamara

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