12 October 2022

Ten Tips for Sewing with Ankara Fabric (AKA African Wax Print)

Ten Tips for Sewing with Ankara Fabric (AKA African Wax Print)

Continuing our posts on tips for sewing with different types of fabrics, we’re showcasing the vibrant, the bold, and the - yes! - easy-to-sew wonder that is Ankara fabric, AKA African wax print. Who better to ask to talk us through how to use this material than Lena King, one of our favourite sewing bloggers and co-host of #SewAnkaraFabric and #AnkaraFabricAppreciationWeek on Insta.

Over to Lena...


I was thrilled when Tilly reached out to me to ask if I’d like to write a guest blog on my favourite fabric, Ankara – also known as Dutch or African wax print. Yes, please!

I’m going to give you an introduction to what Ankara is and where it came from, where you can buy it, and my top tips for sewing with this wonderful material. Spoiler alert: it’s easy to cut, handle and sew – hooray!

Ten Tips for Sewing with Ankara Fabric (AKA African Wax Print)

What is Ankara fabric? 

Ankara, or African wax print, or Dutch wax print, is a cloth manufactured by machine to resemble the effect of wax resist. 

Do you remember doing a bit of wax-resist painting or fabric dying back in school? You took your paper or piece of cloth and drew a design on it with crayon or hot wax and then painted over it or plunged it into a bucket of dye. When dry, you would have just ironed off the wax. That’s the basic process.

It is cotton, a natural fibre which makes it breathable and not sweaty or sticky next to the skin.

It’s a great fabric for beginners. Imagine something between a cotton poplin and quilting-weight cotton often with the softness of a cotton lawn. It’s strong and can withstand the heavy use of a seam ripper! It is stable so stays put when cutting and sewing and it doesn’t stretch out of shape. 

Ten Tips for Sewing with Ankara Fabric (AKA African Wax Print)

My own relationship with Ankara

I’m from Ghana in West Africa and I came to live in the UK when I was two years old. Growing up, I knew that my people and others like them would often wear bright coloured patterned fabric to parties, weddings and funerals. I knew that the fabric was usually just called “cloth” and occasionally “kente”. 

I didn’t see anyone but Africans wear this fabric back then, and I learned to be a bit embarrassed by it because it further signalled us out as different. Sadly, back then racial attitudes abounded and went largely unchecked – black people and Africans in particular, suffered many racial slurs and ignorant comments. 

As I grew older and more comfortable with my heritage, I began seeing the beauty of this cloth and how the beautiful women in my life would wear it in gorgeous, fitted garments; but my body issues and low self-esteem meant that I didn’t want to wear such a fabric that demanded to be noticed.

It has only been in more recent years when my love for sewing collided with my need to feel more connected to my culture that I have fallen in love with this cloth commonly known as Ankara or wax print. Sewing my own clothes has also boosted my self-esteem and I love to wear fabric that screams to be noticed!

What’s the history of Ankara?

During the time of the Dutch colonization of Indonesia, merchants and textile manufacturers saw this craft of batik and the wonderful cloth created by the Indonesians and sought to manufacture it so it could be mass-produced cheaply. However, the fabric that the Dutch traders produced was not welcomed by the European market and instead found its way to Ghana and then other African countries and was loved. Much of the fabric today is still produced in the Netherlands but there are a few manufacturers within the continent of Africa.

As I said earlier, the cloth was often used for celebrations or for your “Sunday Best” in the African community. But these days you will find people wearing Ankara regularly and every day as well as for formal or celebratory occasions. And now you will find that it’s not just people of African heritage wearing this fabric, it has been embraced by all sorts of people and I’m here for it. I often get asked if it is cultural appropriation for non-Africans to wear Ankara and I would say a firm “no”. Remember, the origin of the fabric is Asian, the mass producers were European and the people who warmly embraced it were Africans. If anything, it is a global fabric, it is not sacred to any one people group. I love to see all sorts of people wearing wax print, often supporting black-owned businesses and showing appreciation for a fabric much loved by people like me.

Where can you buy Ankara fabric?

The easiest way to buy Ankara fabric is online. My favourite stockists are Dovetailed London Ltd, Ankara Shop and Inphyneetee.

But the best way is to get out there and shop. I am fortunate to live in an area of London close to several Ankara retailers. Ridley Road Market, Dalston (London) is my nearest and there are plenty of stalls packed with wax print. Do check out the markets near you. Another great place to shop Ankara is Middlesex Street, close to Liverpool Street Station. A length of road and a market of high-end and more affordable wax print, I’ll warn you now, you will end up with more than you intended!

Ten Tips for Sewing with Ankara Fabric (AKA African Wax Print)

How do you sew with Ankara fabric?

Here are my top tips when sewing with Ankara or African wax print:

1. Prepare to buy more than you need

It is more common to find wax print fabric sold as a 6yd bundle rather than by the metre. Be excited about the number of projects you could squeeze out of it rather than be daunted by the excess!

It’s a narrow fabric, 115cm (45in) wide, so it’s a good idea to buy lots anyway, especially if you want to be able to pattern-match the print (more on that below).

2. Look for 100% cotton

There is a lot of polyester/cotton mix Ankara, usually but not always sold cheaper than 100% cotton. My preference is for the pure cotton variety so it’s breathable. Always ask the composition, because the labels won’t necessarily tell you. 

Also, I would highly recommend actually going shopping for wax print and learning to distinguish between the two by touch and sight. It’s not an exact science but the polycotton Ankara will feel quite scrunchy and look very shiny. The true cotton fabric feels a bit softer, looks less shiny and the print is usually as bold on the wrong side as on the right. Polycotton Ankara tends to fray much more when cut too. If you do have a polycotton be careful when ironing because it burns easily – ask me how I know…!

2. Hunt around for styles you love

I truly believe that there is a print and colour for everyone in Ankara. If you like a fun, quirky, jolly prints you’re in luck. If you search around, you’ll find little round spectacles, irons, sewing machines, the alphabet, fans, hair dryers and more worked into Ankara fabric. 

If abstract is more your thing, you’ll find plenty of that too. 

Not all Ankara is large print or overly busy though – there is so much variety in scale, in print and in colour. Although I love bright shades, I also like more earthy tones and leafy prints, which you find plenty of with African wax print.

Ten Tips for Sewing with Ankara Fabric (AKA African Wax Print)

3. Remove the labels carefully

For some reason, Ankara fabric is sold with sticky product labels – usually 2 large ones and then a couple of smaller ones holding the bundle together. 

The labels can be removed easily. Just cover the area with an ironing cloth or old sheet and iron over it with a steam setting. The labels should peel off easily but occasionally some stickiness remains, and you may need to return your old sheet to the sticky patch and keep ironing until it is removed.

4. Don’t fear the washing machine

Pre-washing your fabric before sewing is always a good idea. For washing, just use a normal 30 or 40°C cycle. Some people find that adding lemon juice to the wash can make the fabric less waxy.

The print process means that the colour is strong and does not fade easily. I have garments from my mum that are over 50 years old, and the colour is still bold and not noticeably faded – it just seems to get softer to the touch with washing. 

Ten Tips for Sewing with Ankara Fabric (AKA African Wax Print)

5. Choosing your project

I love the way Ankara holds its shape and gives garments fullness and body – this makes it great for sewing structured pieces.

Fabric like this call for a fun project and what could be more fun than a pair of dungarees? I think the Erin dungarees would look great in Ankara. I’ve sewn a similar pair of dungarees in wax print and they draw so many comments whenever I wear them.

If you’re going for a large, bold print, you’ll want to show it off and break it up as little as possible – in which case, go for a pattern with few cut lines. My go-to Tilly and the Buttons pattern for this has been Stevie – I’ve made two Stevie dresses and a top from wax print. The Miette wrap skirt and the Skye sundress are other great options that will provide a large canvas for your fabulous print.

Traditionally wax print fabric in several African countries has been used to make the rather iconic two-piece set featuring a fitted top with a peplum over a form-hugging long skirt with a slit or fanning out from the knees. The two-piece set is less common now, replaced by gorgeously fitted dresses. One Tilly pattern that springs to mind to recreate this look is the Etta dress, a beautiful vintage-inspired wiggle dress that I’m keen to make myself. Other more fitted or vintage looks could be Francoise, the Megan dress from Love at First Stitch, or even the Rosa shirt dress. I made a Megan dress in bright cerise Ankara and switched the sleeves for those from the Indigo dress.

Perhaps you prefer a less fitted silhouette. You can use Ankara wherever a pattern calls for medium-weight cotton, but sometimes I like to experiment by using Ankara to make a garment that calls for a more floaty, loose fabric like viscose and seeing what this does to the shape and structure of the garment. I have seen, for example, the Indigo dress made in wax print and it certainly gives the pattern a different look which I quite like. Ankara Lyra shirt dress would be lovely too. Or what about the Marnie blouse with all the details? Ankara holds pleats, tucks and ruffles well, so I can imagine a small print wax fabric looking quite gorgeous as a Marnie blouse. 

6. Or add just a flash

Perhaps you’re not quite feeling up to a whole garment in wax print. Why not try it out as a lining say for the bib of the Bobbi pinafore or for an Eden duffle coat? I’ve lined a couple of jackets with Ankara and, although not as smooth as usual lining fabric, it does the job well and adds fun to the garments.

7. Consider print matching

As Ankara often features large, bold prints, you may want to consider matching up the print at the seams.

When you buy your fabric, study the pattern well as it is not always uniform. For print matching, cut your pattern pieces on a single layer of fabric. Draw in the seam allowance on the pattern piece because you’ll have to account for this when laying it out. Cut one piece out then flip the pattern piece over to mirror the cut piece. Fold back the seam allowance to give you a more accurate match. 

But if print matching isn’t your thing, there are plenty of wax print with small designs or that are so busy that mismatched prints won’t be noticed.

Ten Tips for Sewing with Ankara Fabric (AKA African Wax Print)

8. Cut away

Ankara is easy to handle like a cotton, so you can cut it using regular fabric scissors, or a rotary cutter if you prefer. The fabric presses easily – in fact, I often skip some of the pressing stages by pinching the fabric with my fingernails to make a crease. When you do need to use the iron, a medium to high heat setting should be fine. Good, sharp pins will keep your Ankara fabric in place.

9. Mark the wrong side

It is usual for the wrong side of the fabric to look as vibrant as the right side, so working out which is which can become a headache if you’re not careful. Before you cut it out, check the selvedge – the manufacture’s name or branding will be printed along the selvedges, so the wrong side will be clear as the writing will be wrong side up.

To discern the wrong side after cutting out the pieces, mark the wrong side extensively with chalk, or whatever your preferred method of marking is.

10. Sew like a cotton

Similar in weight and structure to a cotton poplin or quilting cotton, Ankara is easy to sew – hooray! A standard 80/12 sewing machine needle works fine. You can use a regular 2.4-2.6mm stitch length, although I usually use a 3mm stitch length because I think it looks nicer.

Ten Tips for Sewing with Ankara Fabric (AKA African Wax Print)

So those are my tips! I hope you do feel inspired to give sewing with Ankara a go. Happy fabric hunting and sewing!


Author and photos: Lena King