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In The Beginning

We love their radiant colors and vibrant patterns; but do we know the story behind them? Do we know how they came to be? Why they came to be?

In this edition we will be looking at the history of the Ankara fabric and how it has grown so popular in recent times. We will be exploring the complex roots of this beautiful fabric and how models and celebrities alike have ended up parading in this beauty.

Although many of us may not be aware, the Ankara fabric is not the only “traditional” fabric associated with Africa. Other types of fabrics unique to the African dynasty include Kitenge, Adire, Aso-Oke, Kanga, Shweshwe, Kente, Bogola, Kuba among others. It is noteworthy to mention that not all motif patterned fabrics are Ankara so we don’t entertain the assumption that ALL traditionally made African fabrics are Ankara prints. Nonetheless, one can easily differentiate one African fabric from the other. For example, the colors on Kente materials are usually very similar and almost always stay in the same pattern bracket whereas the Ankara fabric comes in varied motifs and patterns.

It might interest you to know that Ankara fabric, also known as African Wax Prints or Dutch Wax Prints, did not necessarily originate in Africa! History tells us that they were initially made for the Indonesian market by the Dutch who were their colonial masters at the time. How this material filtered into the African market (through Ghana) is still unknown, but they have gained quite the popularity among West Africans.

At the time, the Dutch wanted to create an imitation of the Indonesian Batik by making use of machines rather than the time consuming traditional method. Unfortunately, their machines occasionally encountered problems that left some patterns on the fabric distorted. The Indonesians refused the material as they deemed it imperfect and so the Dutch sent them down to Africa instead where it was widely accepted, especially in West Africa.

Another version of history tells us that some West African men were taken to Indonesia by the Dutch as slaves and mercenaries to beef up their military. Here, they continued the craft (Batik) they were used to back home and their skills were improved upon by the Dutch. The complexity behind the origins of this fabric is so intriguing and of course, makes you wonder how diverse simple things like clothing can be.

So, what fuelled the thought that this fabric was solely African?

Well, the short answer to that is politics. The longer answer however, expounds how traditional leaders, as far back as 1920, started having their pictures printed on the fabric for campaigning purposes. More so, it is difficult to deny that many of the motifs on the fabric do seem like tribal markings. The early sets of the Ankara fabrics did have patterns that resonated with the African culture including plants and animals.

Although Ankara fabric is vastly popular in Africa, it is rather unfortunate that majority of the Ankara of African wax print textile companies in Africa still have ties to the Dutch. A situation many entrepreneurial Africans hope to change someday. Could this be a reality when the average African on the street, cares less about the origin of their African wax as long as they remain vibrant and radiant? Well, your guess is as good as mine.

We hope you’ve learned a thing or two on the history of the Ankara fabric. Feel free to leave us some comments. Next week, we will be looking at another interesting topic. Until then, do have an amazing week ahead!

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