African Fabrics

For most people, the phrase “African fabric” evokes images of African women dressed in colourful wrap-arounds or fantastically tailored dresses. In many cases these would be made of African wax print fabrics. These fabrics began to be produced during the industrial revolution in Europe, when they were made with the idea of exporting them to Africa.
They have now become very much a part of African culture, especially West Africa, and are gradually spreading further across the continent and to ethnic markets in the UK, Europe and America.


Western African countries especially Ghana and Gambia produce a lot of hand made products using tie-dye and batiks techniques. Artists and artisans use traditional dyeing techniques based on the partial dyeing method which is applied to fabrics and yarns, named “a riserva”.
To obtain this, a part of the material to dye is waterproofed, so that the colour of the dye does not penetrate. With this method, one obtains designs and colour variations, where, whilst the part that was waterproofed remains in the original colour, the remain exposed fabric gets the colour it is dipped in. Successive application of different colours can produce many complex affects and which are very refined.

In order to do the tie-dye, the countries of Ghana and Uganda use as a basis either one colour damask cotton material, called “Shadda”, or one colour smooth cotton material. The tie-dye method is used to make a wide variety of fabric products, such as dresses, bags and accessories, cushions and also to do patchwork.

Kitenje, Chitenje, Wax

’Kitenje’ (or “Chitenje” in Malawi) is a rectangular fabric which is between 2 and 4 meters long and 1 meter wide. It is a cotton material which is wax printed. It is characterized by different designs such as geometrical, floral and abstract and by vibrant colours. It is used to make dresses, shirts and skirts. Moreover, in a lot of rural parts of Africa, women use it to wrap it around their waists to cover themselves. Wrapping a kitenje around ones’ waist is a form of art for which the women use a particular technique. Kitenje is also used as a band to carry babies on their shoulders.