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Choosing Fabric: African wax print

Choosing fabric for clothes can be an intimidating and confusing process.

This Choosing Fabric series aims to demystify the types of fabric you will likely come across in the shops, and make helpful suggestions on what to use for your intended project.

What is African wax print?

African wax print is a batik printed, woven cotton fabric. Sometimes called Dutch wax print, the fabric originated in West Africa when the Dutch began to mechanise the traditional Indonesian batik printing process for the local market.

Wax prints in a shop
Photograph by Alexander Sarlay [Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

How does it look and feel?

Wax print is rather stiff and firm to the touch. Be aware though, the fabric does soften slightly over time! The 'right' and 'wrong' side of the fabric can be hard to determine as the colourful designs show through on both sides.

What is it good for?

African wax print has structure so it is great for garments with volume, and if you want to make a daring statement with print!

Garments that look great in wax print include fitted dresses, structured tops, garments with peplum details, circle skirts and even trousers.

What isn't it good for?

Wax print is a woven fabric, so it does not stretch. Anything that doesn't require an elastic, buttons or a zip closure to get into is definitely a no-go.

Don't go for garments with drape if you're working with wax print, it doesn't have the required soft, weighty feel to it.

Surface design of a wax print
Photograph by Terrie Schweitzer [Own work, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via Flickr

What is it like to work with?

Wax print is a pleasure to work with. It keeps its shape, doesn't slip, and sews together beautifully. Great for beginners!

What if I can't find African wax print?

African wax print is pretty common, especially in South African fabric shops. Look for other names like Dutch wax print or batik, it's likely to be the same thing!

Note though that African wax print is not the same as shweshwe. Shweshwe is a much harder, starched fabric that is local to South Africa. More on that another time!