5 Iconic African Prints

The history behind 5 iconic African fabric patterns

There are those who have argued that  African textiles are not African because they originated from Indonesia https://cnn.it/2PGe5Eu.  The textiles, they say, were introduced in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) by a  Dutch entrepreneur Pieter Fentener Van Vlissingen in 1846, at the height of the Industrial Revolution. These textiles quickly spread across the continent and quickly became part of the African identity and culture. 

But these prints are not just an African affair. Their influence and popularity is growing across the globe. It ‘s worth noting that it is the fashion designers using these prints who are propelling African culture onto the world stage. Some are doing this by styling African and international brands together or having their production bases in Africa.  For example, KOY, a UK clothing line, fuses the Kenyan Kikoy fabric with chic British designs. This is throwing Africa in the world’s eye as a fashion powerhouse.

This emerging trend is perhaps due to the complexity and exquisiteness of the continent’s traditional prints. Africa’s traditional fabrics are eye-catching for their beautiful, rich, bold colours and intricate patterns. Here is a brief history of some of them: 


This brightly colored mix of woven silk and cotton fabric is thought to have originated in South Ghana in the 17th century. It is made by the Asante and Ewe people of Ghana. It derives its name from the word Kenten, meaning basket. 

The Asante people believe that the fabric was conceived in Bonwire, a town in Ghana’s  Ejisu-Juaben Municipal district. At the time, the town was just a small village. Today this town is the heartland for kente cloth weaving. 

The fabric did not just change Bonwire, it changed the entire country and its people. At the time, the fabric was reserved for the King of the Ashanti Kingdom. Well, times have changed and so has the fabric. Kente is for everyone now and has become part of Ghana’s identity. 

What’s amazing is Kente cloth’s little beginnings according to an Asante legend. It started when two hunters from the community came across a spider spinning a web. Amazed by the beauty of the web, they thought of creating something similar! Once they were done with hunting, they put their thoughts into action. 

With fibres from a raffia tree, they “spun” their first cloth and presented it to the King. The king, impressed by their creation, decided to embellish it. He suggested that the creation would be more attractive if they found a way to produce it in different colours given that the raffia tree only produces white and black fibres.

Then one of the community’s greatest weavers came up with an innovative idea that gave Kente different colours. This involved using the bark and seeds of local trees to create dyes. The trees could produce red, green and yellow dyes.  Once, the threads were ready, weavers would soak them in the dyes before making colorful fabric for the King https://bit.ly/2NbjbqC 

But the process of making Kente has since evolved. Ghanaian weavers now use a traditional wooden loom to change the raffia fibers into different colors. The loom allows them to interlace vertical threads with horizontal threads they sew together to create larger pieces of cloth.

Kente is incorporated in clothing items such as hoodies, trousers and accessories such as bags but it is often used as embroidery on garments, particularly on hems, sleeves and necklines. It is no longer a Ghanaian affair but a global one. It is a symbol of African heritage.

Animal prints

Before the advent of modern clothing on the continent, Africans would wear animal hides which were made from the skins of both wild and domesticated animals. These included skins from cows, goats, sheep, cheetahs, zebras and leopards. 

In most African cultures, every animal skin would convey a particular message. Some of the skins such as that of a leopard were associated with power and therefore were reserved for royals. It was believed that one would become even more powerful by wearing a leopard’s skin for example. 

Animal prints have taken today’s global fashion world by storm. Celebrities have stepped out clad in perfectly polished snakeskin skirts, cheetah-inspired accessories, zebra-inspired gowns and classic leopard shoes and suits, making animal prints even more popular.

It is common to find garments such as coats and skirts and accessories such as watches, belts, bangles, and bags fitted with shapes and patterns that mimic the skin or fur of animals like tigers and leopards. These animal prints are sleek and glamorous and represent adventure and power. They are associated with sophistication, style, and versatility of the wearer.


Imagine wearing something made from fermented riverbed mud to announce your social status. That was the case in 12th-century Mali. Surprisingly, these hand-painted mud clothes were white in color and only bore some brown pigments.  

But how did this come about? According to the Dagon people of Mali-who make mud cloth, the print came about when one of their hunters fell into a muddy river while on a hunting spree. The mud would not wash out of his garment and mud cloth was born.  

Mudcloth prints are still being made in Mali today by stitching together strips of handwoven cotton.  These pieces of cotton are then soaked into a yellow dye. The dye is made from leaves of the n’gallama tree which are mashed and soaked to produce the yellow pigment.  The cloth is then painted with different designs using fermented mud before washing and drying in the sun. Bleach can be applied to achieve a white cloth.

Mudcloth is not just a fashion affair. It is used in fine art and decorations as well and has become one of Mali’s exports. It symbolizes the country’s cultural identity.  The prints appear mostly on dresses and tops in bold geometric designs set on white or black colored backgrounds. Mudcloth cushions, poufs and peshtemals are also popular globally.       


The name dashiki comes from a Yoruba word that means shirt or inner garment. It was basically a loose-fitting pullover worn by men. Today it is a unisex fabric. The print comes in various designs ranging from V-neck tunics with colorful design features around the neck, sleeves, and hem. Dashiki pants, dresses and kaftans are also popular.

Also called Angelina print, dashiki is thought to have originated in West Africa before finding its way into the United States at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It was worn by African Americans as a symbol of Black pride and unity. It could be argued that that is still the case. Chris Brown, Beyonce, Rihanna, and Wiz Khalifa are among the celebrities of African descent who continue to embrace this style.


I am not talking about Turkey’s capital but a bold, vibrant and colorfully patterned wax print that is popular in Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal. Ankara is a cotton fabric made through a wax-resist dyeing technique called batik. The process limits the amount of dye reaching the fabric to create diverse patterns.

Ankara is not only made into clothes but it can also be used to make hats, shoes and earrings.

It is widely believed that Ankara was first made in Indonesia and Europe by the Dutch but others dispute it insisting the print originated from West Africa. This Dutch origin is perhaps the reason why the fabric is also called “African wax,” “Holland wax” or “Dutch wax.”  

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