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The History and Origins of African Wax Print

Barrister turned designer and author Adaku Parker briefs us on the origins of African wax print, the magnificently bold cotton textiles whose history spans continents.

This extract is taken from Sewing with African Wax Print Fabric by Adaku Parker, published by CICO Books (£14.99). Images are from Adaku's website, www.dovetailed.co.uk.

 Adaku Parker, a woman smiling and wearing glasses, holding a pile of folded colourful African Wax Print textiles.

“African wax print” describes cotton fabrics that are printed using the industrial wax- resist method. These bold and often brightly-coloured textiles feature a range of traditional and contemporary African motifs. The fabrics have an interesting and complex cultural history, and as a result, you might hear them being called African Wax Print, Dutch Wax Print, or Ankara Hollandaise.

Assorted African wax print textiles fanned out on a table

Cotton has been woven in Africa since the sixth century AD and would have been printed using natural dyes. However, it was the Dutch that introduced industrially wax-printed cotton designs to the African continent during the early to mid-nineteenth century. At that time, the Netherlands ruled what was then called Dutch East India (present-day Indonesia) and Dutch textile merchants created what we now know as African Wax print by imitating the Indonesian Batik print. The traditional Batik method involves hand-painting intricate designs onto cloth using beeswax. Colours are then added to the design and the waxed areas “resist” the penetration of the dye. When the wax is removed, the patterns are revealed. 

Close up of blue African wax print textiles

The Dutch sought to mechanize this process, with a view to mass-producing these fabrics and selling them to the Indonesians. Their modernized method involved transferring the design to cylindrical plates (copper rollers) that were covered in wax. These plates then transferred the pattern to both sides of the fabric. This created areas of the fabric, covered in wax, that would “resist” the colour penetration. The fabric was then plunged into a vat of indigo dye and the non-waxed areas became bright blue. After some of the wax had been removed, and the fabrics had dried, colours were added one after the other using a stamp or block. It is generally very difficult to produce fabrics that are printed on both sides with the same pattern and colour, so this unique characteristic is something that African wax print manufacturers aspire to achieve and are celebrated for. 

Assorted African wax print textiles, folded and lined on top of each other.

The Indonesians, however, were unimpressed with the brighter, graphic wax prints that the Dutch had produced, as the mechanized dyeing process caused a veined or crackling effect that they saw as imperfections. At this time, some 700 soldiers from the Gold Coast in modern-day Ghana had returned home from fighting in Java, bringing with them the new fabrics. What the Indonesians had seen as flaws, 

West Africans considered it to be a testament to the quality of the printing process. And so, African wax printing begins in Africa. 

Learn how to create a Marilyn makeup bag using these striking printed textiles in Adaku's online course, taken from Sewing with African Wax Print Fabric, published by CICO Books, £14.99. Buy the Book