African Wax Prints and the Story behind their names

african print

What is African Print or Ankara Fabric

African Wax Print, also called Ankara Fabric, Dutch Wax Prints, or Holland Print is 100% cotton fabric with beautiful vibrant colours for clothing in Africa, especially West Africa.

These Fabrics were first produced in Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). African soldiers who were serving in the region at that time started to import the fabrics
into Africa. The Fabrics suddenly caught on with many in West Africa. In the meantime, Europeans traders were hard at work replicating the fabrics using modern machinery especially the Dutch who are now the main producers of the Fabric.

A key element of African culture and pride is the African fabric or Ankara Fabric. Brilliant African print fabrics are the prized possession of the African, and have been worn to grace traditional functions and special occasions throughout our history. African wax prints form a major part of our cultural identity and heritage.

These African prints are all unique and authentic, each bearing a traditional richness that is befitting of proud black people. There’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t secure as many of these African prints as possible for yourself and your loved ones.

Each of these brightly colored African fabrics has a unique story behind its origin, and whatever you use them to make, you can be proud to be wearing an African wax print that attests to your rich black heritage.

 

54 ANKARA FABRICS AND THE STORY BEHIND THEIR NAMES

Michelle Obama’s Bag

The release of this print coincided with the arrival of Michelle Obama in Africa, who then was First Lady of the United States. The story goes that the fabric was named after the eye-catching handbag she wore as she was disembarking the plane.

 

Leaf Trail
Also Known as Ahuodi Pankassa | Makaïva

This fabric is known as “Ahuodi Pankassa Wusa Arm”, which translates to ‘empty barrels make the most noise.’ It means that if you are good at something you must be modest about it. Others may say you’re good, but to say so yourself would be a hollow claim. Sometimes one colourway of a pattern acquires a special meaning. In Ghana, for example, this pattern in blue main motifs is only worn by women who want to indicate they are pregnant.

Congrès

The pattern is very popular in Ivory Coast and Togo. Its two colours, red and yellow, are printed on top of each other. Each year it is worn during the meeting of the Lomé Houngni women, an order of women from Lomé, Togo. Despite the many imitations of this pattern that circulate today, the real Vlisco pattern remains the first choice for notables and upper class.

 

The Happy Family
Also Known as La Famille

The Happy Family design represents the archetypical African family. It is synonymous with the social identity of its wearer. At the center is the maternal figure, the chicken, surrounded by her chicks and future chicks, the eggs. The father – the rooster – is nothing but trouble and only his head is shown. This clearly indicates the pivotal role of women inside the family. The Happy Family stands for family value from which the wearer derives status.

 

Obaapa

“Obaapa” means ‘A Good Woman’ or ‘A Good Wife’. It indicates that you want to be a good woman for your husband.

 

Village Molokai
Also Known as Guerre de Shaba

This popular fabric in DRCongo is called ‘Village Molokai’, as connecting the village of Molokai in DRCongo to the village depicted on the design. The pattern is also called “Guerre de Shaba”, ‘The War of Shaba’, on account of the struggle for independence that broke out in Shaba, a province in the southern part of DRCongo, now known as Katanga.

 

Small Star
Also Known as Kilikili Star

One of Vlisco’s most beloved heritage designs is that of the Small Star, known locally by the Igbo tribe in Nigeria as the “Kilikili Star”. This is one of the stories behind it’s name. The king of Moonland commissioned a mirror that should shine like the sun. When the only reflection the mirror gave was the moon, the king flew into a rage and cursing he smashed the mirror. Sending hundreds of fragments into the air, where they planted themselves like shining stars in the sky.

 

Table Fan

Fans were once the only way to cool down in the warm African climate, and in Nigeria, market vendors with electric fans enjoyed a certain status. In Nigeria, where it’s known as ‘Table Fan’, the design is popular in traditional Igbo colours. Today this Vlisco original has become a favourite in many countries.

 

Awoulaba

In Baoule, Awoulaba means Queen of Beauty. Women with generous curves are called Awoulaba. Its popularity in the 80s coincided with the first edition of the beauty contest “Miss Awoulaba”.

 

Sugar

This design is often referred to as Sucre, because the pattern resembles lumps of sugar.

 

Hibiscus
Also Known as Topizo

The Hibiscus pattern is especially popular in Guinea and Ivory Coast. Twelve yards are regarded as essential to a bride’s dowry: ‘No Hibiscus, no Wedding.’ The pattern is known by several other names, including “Topizo” in Togo and “Tohozin” in Benin (both meaning ‘rush’), alluding to the day it first went on sale, when it was met by a rush of customers. In 1970, it was adopted by Air Zaire’s flight attendants as their uniform.

 

Television

Nigerian women call this fabric ‘Television’, possibly because of the boxed structures that seemingly depict motion pictured stories!

 

Eyes
Also Known as Lustful Eye

The design is simply known as Eyes in Nigeria, a name inspired by the eye drawing. In Ivory Coast, this popular design is called “L’Oeil de Boeuf” (Bull’s Eye) but, it is also known as “Lisu ya Pité”, meaning ‘Lustful Eye’. Women wear it that want to show a man that she desires him.

 

Cha Cha Cha

Also Known as  Change your life | Senchi Bridge | Aganmakpo | La Danse à la Mode

This pattern has many meanings. The names “Cha Cha Cha” and ‘Change your Life’ are derived from the rhythm of the pattern. ‘Senchi Bridge’ refers to a bridge over the Volta River in Ghana, a suspension bridge that sways violently when crossed. In Togo the pattern is called “Aganmakpo”, which means the back of a chameleon, an animal that symbolises change. And in Ivory Coast this pattern was called “La Danse à la Mode” after the war in that country.

 

Lomé 2015

This design is a new interpretation of the iconic ‘1004’ pattern. President Faure Gnassingbé of Togo had renewals and renovations planned for the city of Lomé in 2015 . The people of Togo named the pattern ‘Lomé 2015’ because they no longer believed in change.

 

Na You Biko
Also Known as My hat goes off to you

In Nigeria, this fabric is called “Na You Biko”, meaning: ‘My hat goes off to you’. Sometimes, it is also referred to as ‘The Diamond’, because of the leaves that are somewhat diamond-shaped.

 

Big Bible
Also Known as Snail

In Nigeria, this design is known as the Big Bible and the Snail, a literal interpretation of the motif. The fabric is adored by the Igbo, a tribe in the Eastern part of Nigeria, who wear it during festive periods, such as their August meeting.

 

Fish Scale
Also Known as Finger Nail, Akpirikpa Azu, Bijenkorfje, Abarro Basso

This design has been given several names across several countries. “Akpirikpa azu” means ‘fish scale’ in Igbo language. It is so called among the Igbo of eastern Nigeria because the design looks similar to the scale pattern on the tropical tilapia fish. “Bijenkorfje” is South-African for ‘bee hyve’, which is also inspired by the structure of the pattern.

 

ABC
Also Known as Alphabet

People wear this design to indicate that they went to school and know how to read and write. They also attach importance to a good education for their children, and they set aside money to provide it.

 

Love Bomb
Also Known as Wounded Heart | Cœur Blessé | Dynamite

In Togo this pattern has acquired a special meaning. The drawing depicts the state of mind of a woman who knows her husband is cheating on her and is leaving her with a “Cœur Blessé”, a broken heart.

 

Barclay’s Bank
Also Known as Iburaka Belun / Igba Akubu Ilum / Katikati / Mbanda

This design is known by many names including ‘Barclay’s Bank’ or “Iburaka Belun”. In Igbo language this means: ‘Are you coming to marry me empty handed?’ Like the meaning implied in ‘Barclay’s Bank’, it declares that the wearer’s suitor better be a stable provider.

 

Don’t get married empty-handed

Don’t get married with empty hands: In Togo, young women prepare for marriage by assembling their valuable materials and financial assets, in order to be financially independent from their future husband. it is said that when a girl is wed with love as her only baggage, she runs the risk of returning to her mother’s arms in tears very quickly.

 

The eye of my rival
Also Known as Moran’s Eyes

In Ivory Coast, this fabric refers up family tensions, because by this direct information, members of the family and their immediate relatives are called to act, to take a stand. This wax reveals the discrepancies between the co-wives and between them and their husbands. This line requires that the situation be dedramatized and that the limits of the different roles be restored. The name of the wax solicits the word of all. It raises feelings, but above all it creates a dialogue where everyone has to freely examine his own feelings. Under his abstract motifs, he proclaims the love and family life of the woman.

 

Helmet
Also Known as Bunch of bananas / Shell

This heritage design from the 1960s is also known as ‘Bunch of Bananas’ and “Coquillage”, which means shell in English. In Togo this design is known as “Abobo To Lé Gomè”, which means ‘the snail out of its shell’. In a village called Abobo, they celebrate the Abobozan festival in September each year. During the festival, snail dishes are enjoyed by locals and the snail fabric is a popular choice.

 

The Moon
Also Known as La Lune

The origins of this Java design lie in Kano, Nigeria. The pattern is an interpretation of a tie-dye motif that is still being used by indigo dyers in Kano today. The large spiral of dots represents the sultan surrounded by his entourage. The pattern is also popular in Ghana, where it was named after a junction in the city of Obo. In Togo, the pattern refers to small change—literally shells, which were once used as currency.

 

Jumping Horse
Also Known as I run faster than my Rival

The names of many patterns identify with a woman’s family and marital relationships. In Côte d’Ivoire, the classic Jumping Horse, also known as “Je Cours Plus Vite Que Ma Rivale” (I Run Faster than My Rival), expresses the rivalry between co-wives. In Nigeria, Igbo women favor this design for Aso-Ebi (uniform cloth) to express unity at their annual women’s meeting, held every August.

 

Day and Night

The two halves of this pattern represent ‘Day and Night’, in reference to a custom in Indonesia, where light clothing would be worn during the evening and dark clothing during the day.

 

Rolls Royce
Also Known as Fleurs De Mariage / Mgbolodi

This popular fabric is known by names such as “Rolls Royce”, “Mgbolodi” and “Fleurs de Mariage” (Wedding Flowers). It symbolizes the beauty of happiness in a marriage. It is also believed that when owned or worn, the design will bring uncountable success and wealth to the owner and their family. Perhaps the fabric owes its name “Rolls Royce” to this superstition.

 

You leave, I leave
Also Known as Tu sors, je sors

The name “Tu sors, je sors” means: if you are unfaithful to me, I’m not going to restrain myself either. With these words, the newlywed wife warns her husband about future escapades. In Togo the pattern is always bought by the woman herself in order to spread the word. The pattern became popular in 1983, particularly in Ivory Coast. The pattern was removed from the line in the nineties, but has been sold again since 2007.

 

The Head of the Family

The geometrical shapes in this fabric resemble a person embracing others. The story goes that it stands for the head of a family embracing a baby in the arm, with siblings at the feet.

 

Onion

The name of this design is inspired by its motifs, which look a lot like onions. In Benin, this fabric is also called ‘Home on three legs’ and it symbolizes the power of unity.

 

Advice
Also Known as Conseille, Macaroni

“In Ivory Coast, this fabric is called “Conseille”, meaning: advice. When the fabric came out, Ivorian women had the habit of advising their daughters on romantic relationships.
However, in Benin the fabric is referred to as “Macaroni” because the shapes are similar to that of macaroni parts.

 

Speed Bird
Also Known as Air Afrique | ‘Rich today, poor tomorrow’

With the bird being such an important symbol in many cultures, this fabric has gained a variety of meanings, often referring to change, prosperity, freedom and transition. In Ghana the pattern refers to the transience of riches: rich today, poor tomorrow, for money has wings and can fly away. But the pattern also symbolises asking for a favour, such as the hand of a young woman. In Togo the pattern is called “”Air Afrique”” because the fabric was also used in the uniform of the local airline company.
In the Ebo region it is called Eneke, and it is said that if the hunters learn to shoot without missing, they have learned to fly without perching.

 

Aklepan
Also Known as Tomato, Necklace

The name “Aklepan” refers to an instrument used in the “Oracle Fa-“, a voodoo ritual. Perhaps it is the instrumental nature of this pattern that inspired the traders to name the fabric thereafter.

 

Otopa

This design is called “Otopa” in Togo. In the book “Les Messages du Pagne” (The Stories of Loin Cloth), this pattern means ‘Concert of Stars’. They are shining and moving. It’s a sign of a celebration, success and joy. The second name of the design, in Benin is “Hêfounmè wè hè non soudè” meaning ‘The Bird is growing in his down Feather’.

 

Pepper Leaf
Also Known as Adémé

This design is called ‘Pepper Leaf’ and “Adémé”, named after a vegetable from the south of Togo. Most mothers have their own way of preparing this vegetable, and likewise this fabric has many ways it can be worn.

 

Angelina
Also Known as Ya Mado, Miriam Makeba

This pattern was originally one of the most important of the Vlisco range. The popularity of the print coincided with the release of the hit song “Angelina” by legendary Ghanaian band “The Sweet Talks”. People began referring to the printed fabric as ‘Angelina’. In Congo, this print is called “Ya Mado”. Famous Congolese singer Fabregas released the song “Mascara”, in which “Ya Mado!” Was part of the lyrics, referring to an attractive voluptuous woman. As the dancers wore this pattern in the music video, the name Ya Mado gained popularity in Congo. Since the passing of beloved singer and activist Miriam Makeba, in Congo this fabric is also named after her, as Miriam was always dressed in African prints.

 

Icons on a Pedestal

In celebration of Vlisco’s iconic drawings, our designers created a new fabric design by showcasing a number of famous Vlisco figures on pedestals. Some of these symbols will be instantly recognisable to many of Vlisco’s fans, such as ‘The Hand’, ‘The Jumping Horse’ and ‘The Fan’.

 

Grotto
Also Known as Papaya Ye Asa

‘Grotto’ is an Ivorian term that refers to a well-off person who enjoys social recognition. Wearing this fabric affirms the high social status to which a woman belongs by her own merit or thanks to her wealthy spouse. The Grotto is one of the successful pagnes that have gone through the generations in Côte d’Ivoire.
In Ghana this fabric is called “Papa Ye Asa”, which means “”goodness is finished””. The meaning behind “Papa Ye Asa” is that no matter what you do for your fellow human being he/she will never be grateful.

 

King’s Chair
Also Known as Ashanti Chair, Oche Eze, Hene Egua

Two stories have circulated about the meaning of this fabric. By the Igbo in Nigeria, this fabric is called “Oche Eze” and is a must-have for newly married ladies. This fabric is bought by the bride’s family as a gift to their daughter, and presented to her on her traditional wedding day along with other items. “Oche Eze” symbolizes the wealth of the bride’s family which she brings along to her new family. In Ghana the title ‘The King’s Chair’ refers to gossiping about people, and that you would have to pull up a chair to discuss everything about a person, because every person has a long story.

 

Handcuffs
Also Known as Don’t be unhappy because I walk with my Hands tied.” | Aban Nkaba | Olympia

This fabric is known as “Olympia” but more popular is the name: “Aban Nkaba”- (detention chains/ Handcuffs). The lyrics of a popular Ghanaian song about a man going to prison read “Don’t be to unhappy because I am in prison and walk with my hands tied.” The rings in this design were associated with the handcuffs mentioned in the song.

 

Santana
Also Known as Darling don’t turn your Back on Me

This rare three-colours pattern, loved by the Igbo, is one of the few Wax Hollandais patterns to incorporate three colours. Santana is derived from the name Madame Santa Anna Nelly, the name of one of the Nana Benz in Togo who apparently got the exclusivity of the sales of this pattern. The pattern is based on a sketch provided by vendors. It is said to represent an angry woman lying in bed with her back to the husband. Her husband is asking for forgiveness and begging het to turn around, saying “Cherie, ne me tourne pas le dos” (Darling, don’t turn your back on me).

 

Fallen Tree

This design, known as ‘Fallen Tree’, is especially popular in Ghana. The Twi proverb written on a scroll above the tree reads “Dua kur gye enum a obu” (‘One Tree alone cannot stand the Wind’), meaning that in unity, there is strength. The design draws on the aesthetics of Dutch Art Nouveau and Indo-European batiks produced from the beginning of the 1900s, although it was designed considerably later, in 1933.

 

Record
Also Known as Target / Nsu Bura

This drawing first appeared on the market in the 1960s and goes by many names, such as “Plaque-Plaque”, “Target”, and “Nsu Bura”, which means ‘water well’ in Ghana. When you throw a stone in a water well, you can see a ripple effect. The message is that whatever you do, good or bad, it will have an effect on everyone around you. Other names include “Consulaire”, “Gbédjégan” (which is a traditional straw king’s hat in Togo), and “Gbedze”, a hat worn during daily activities to protect the wearer from the sun. In Nigeria, the design is known as Record, thanks to the circular shape of the motif, which reminds many consumers and traders of old vinyl records.

 

Mama Benz

This pattern is a playful reference to Mama Benz, a name given to the female vendors of Vlisco products (also known as Nana Benz). Because of the succes in their jobs, these women have the opportunity to buy Mercedes Benzes, which explains the origin of the term.

 

Genito
Also Known as Le Cheque et le Choque

Genito” is a virile young lover, while “Grotto” is a wealthy, fat, older uncle. In Ivory Coast they also speak of “Le cheque et le choque”, ‘The cheque and the scare’, referring to the older rich man who adores young, beautiful women.

 

The Household Gravel
Also Known as Leopard Skin

The motifs in this pattern are associated with the gravel around a house as well as the texture of a panther’s skin, hence the names ‘The Household Gravel’ and “Peau de Léopard”. The gravel also refers to the immediate family – ‘It’s sometimes sharp and can cut you deeply’ – that is, your immediate family can give you the most pain.

 

Sugar Cane Plant

The story goes that Nigerian women have titled this fabric as “Cane a Sucre”, possibly referring to similarities between this design and the shapes of sugar cane plants.

Six Bougies

In May 1940, a Portuguese trader named Nogueira arrived in Helmond in the Netherlands to order a custom-made Wax Hollandais. He conceived an idea for a design with six spark plugs (bougies), indicating that its wearer had a six-cylinder car, a sign of wealth. During the Second World War, Vlisco was unable to carry out production operations, but numerous trial productions with Six Bougies were conducted. After the war, this supply of fabric constituted the first shipment to the fully dried-up Congolese market, and it appears to have been an immediate success. Over the years the design took different popular meaning: the woman in the middle is strong enough to take on six men.

 

The Force
Also Known as I am sitting at my Gate | Gendarmerie

One of the stories comes from Togo where the first name given to this drawing was “Je suis assis à mon portail” (‘I am sitting at my gate’). The name was a literal reflection of the design, which depicts a lion (or person) sitting at a gate. The name later changed to “Gendarmerie” (or ‘Force’ in English) as the design reminded some people of the entrance of the Togolese police station.

 

Nkrumah’s Pencil

This design was once given the name ‘Nkrumah’s Pencil’, after Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana. As the story goes, Nkrumah was known for making strong comments and speeches both at home and worldwide. But before proclaiming anything, he gave much thought to what he would say and put it down on paper. Nkrumah’s pencils were always well sharpened, and his written words served as a weapon against any obstacle in his way.

 

Good living

Since its release 75 years ago, this is still one of the most popular fabrics in Ghana. The colourful flower motifs attest to the Chinese style of batiks that were made in the Javanese village of Pekalongan, where many Chinese traders had their domicile. The name Pekalongan became linked to a dyeing and printing procedure that is unique to Vlisco and is characterised by very strong and saturated colours.
The revival of the fabric on the Ivorian market in 2008, coincided with the broadcast of a popular television show about ‘a daughter of a gardener’. Hence, this floral design got its Ivorian title ‘La Fille du Jardinier’.

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