The Curious History of “Tribal” Prints

There’s an interesting article my friend Liz sent my from on Dutch Wax Prints. When I was in Ghana several years ago, it was clear that ‘Dutch’ wax was considered the best in ‘tribal’ prints. The article goes on to say that the prints we readily associated with West Africa are really more Indonesian than anything. Here’s the article if you’re interested.

Athropologie has used them to cover ottomans and to upholster chairs. Woolrich Woolen Mills turned them into short-sleeve button-ups, and Agnes B. used them to make a summer suit. Burberry Prorsum tailored them into prim dresses and separates, while over at L.A.M.B., Gwen Stefani has used them to make some of the smallest minis known to man. Even the new Marni collection for H&M is studded with them.* 

Here’s a link to the fabric I bought in Ghana and projects made by my sewing friends with it.

And the only one left in my closet is this Tracy Reese Vogue pattern. I have just one more cut left and it’s become ‘too nice to use’. I suspect I won’t even touch it until this dress falls apart.

I grew out of my original favorite… it now resides with my mom. I like to tell myself it was always too small in the bust… If I could get my hands on this material or a similar border print, I would sew it up again in a heartbeat.


  1. i skimmed through the article, it’s interesting. It will always be “African print/fabric” to me but now i can drop some knowledge about the history (like i needed anything else to add to my mental nerd bank)

  2. Really interesting article. Thanks for that. I’m a fan of the fabric, although I’m not always sure how to use it. Your dresses are lovely.

  3. It’s harder for us melanin-challenged folk to pull off tribal prints. I’ve used a black-and-red print on blue chambray to good effect, and also a jungle-foliage inspired print in greens and blues and mustard gold, for a very casual summer outfit. Good design is good design, no matter where it comes from. I refuse to limit myself to little-old-white-lady prints for every single item in my wardrobe.

  4. Thanks for this rich, rich blog entry. Love all the pics!

    Now, where can we buy this fabric on the web?

  5. Over at Sense and Sensibility, Jennie is importing kanga cloth pieces with the procedes going to teach and equip a home sewing industry for women. I got one from the first batch she sold – they are wonderful!
    Love your dresses from this fabric.

  6. I love that green dress, too and I hope you find some similar fabric to make another. I have a large piece of gorgeous silk/rayon with an African-inspired border print (I bought it in Malaysia) that I can’t bring myself to cut. I think I even have a print with maps of Africa on it, too! I’m not sure how that one got there, maybe I bought it in Kenya, I can’t remember.

  7. When I was in Accra the only fabric I saw at the market was the icky stuff from China, and I didn’t fly my ass all the way there to buy that. The craft market had some clothes sewn up already, but no yardage. I am officially jealous! Your remaining green dress is lovely.

  8. Oh I adore the green dress and you look lovely in it, and I’m sure your mom does as well. I would have bought that fabric in a heartbeat myself, that’s a shade of green I can also wear very well. I currently have a tunic top sewn up in a “tribal” leaf print of white on black linen. I wasn’t sure about it, being as white as wonder bread myself, but I just loved it from the first time I saw it so I bought it and sewed it up. It seems a real shame to limit such lovely fabrics to any one group of people.

  9. I love tribal prints, too . . . have several of them I picked up in Tanzania several years ago, but have only sewn one of them. I’m sad to see Redsilvia’s comments about the fabric in Accra . . . I will probably be going to Ghana and hoped to stock up while I was there.

  10. I absolutely LOVE your version of the Tracy Reese dress – it looks fabulous on you. I wish I could imagine that I might look half as good in these glorious prints!

  11. Just looked at the slideshow of the other fabrics you bought in Ghana-LOVE the maxi dress one and the two pieces you gifted, especially the brown one for..erm…Trena? The other bit that looked like loops is an amazing graphic print, I would never have guessed that it was meant to be a “tribal” print, it’s just very much an eye magnet!

  12. Sigh…the brown print is on Christina, the loop (crochet?) print is on Trena-sorry about that ladies, no harm meant, just really bad with names! LOVE the fabrics though!

  13. Super fascinating! I studied anthropology so I love stuff like that–it’s amazing what complicated multi-faceted histories there are behind what people assume are somehow “tribal” or “authentic.” I have a few of those prints in my stash from a discount fabric store in Boston (probably not the high-quality ones, since they were $1.99, but they are double-sided wax prints) and I’ve been meaning to make a dress for my daughter and one for me too.

  14. I am pleased to see “tribal” in quotes. I get tired of seeing anything remotely related to Africa described as “tribal,” as if all Africans were organized solely in tribes and lived huts.

    There’s a sewing website that I no longer read that had a habit of playing Let’s imitate some culture about which we know nothing. One week, the theme was “Let’s sew Tribal garb.”

    I’m not crazy about waxed west African fabric. I tend not to like the feel, the prints, the scale of the prints, or the colors. I know someone with some direct West African ancestry who tries to make fun of me as a supposedly self-hating minority, but s/he can go to hell.

  15. Thanks for bringing that article to our attention, it is very interesting to know that the designs themselves did not originate in Africa. I was not clear on whether the term “African print” was somehow offensive, or if the article was just explaining why it is inaccurate. I would prefer to call them African prints rather than calling them Dutch wax prints and then having to explain what I mean!
    I just love the brilliant colors and bold designs, and I have a small collection of fabrics I hope to use soon. You did a beautiful job with your designs, and your dresses are just gorgeous.

  16. […] African-style cotton wax prints, $1.99/yard (Sew-Fisticated again). No idea if these were made in the Netherlands or West Africa or China, but they’re really soft and seem to be of good quality–I think the fishies will make a lovely simple sundress for my daughter, and the leaves/floral could be a Bombshell dress for me. (See also post and discussion at Miss Celie’s Pants, “The curious history of ‘tribal’ prints.”) […]

  17. Tribal prints have a whole shelf of their own at Vogue Fabrics in Evanston, IL (important distinction since there are three Vogue Fabrics locations and the bestest is in Evanston). My question is on the first dress, Cidell. How do you keep the colors in the Tracy Reese dress from fading? Are you hand-washing or dry-cleaning this garment?

    • I prewashed and just do a cold water wash with woolite. No fading. Actually, now that I think about it, none of the prints I have faded. The one fabric I ‘made’ is still runny though. I haven’t sewn that up yet.

  18. Love these dresses, and I wish I could pull off wearing those vibrant colors and prints. Beautiful, beautiful job with the border print, too!

  19. These Dutch fabrics can be ordered at
    Vlisco is the producer of these beautiful prints. I think it’s a pity though that you have to order 6 yards, because that is the amount of fabric the African women need to drape around them…guess I have to find someone who wants to share with me!

  20. Sorry to be so ‘late to the party’–the Columbia River chapter of ASG presented a fashion show last year in which many of the garments were made using ‘tribal’ fabrics. You can read about it (and see a photo, which doesn’t really capture the versatility and beauty of the fabric and garments).

  21. They’re also not African fabrics, but Dutch. Dutch imitations of African and Indonesian prints – one of the many sad, sad results of colonialism. The sad thing is that the entire industry is being propped up by Africans, while the traditional textile designers are forced out of business for fabrics that are not even African.

  22. I just finished reading the article. Ridiculous. Batik existed in Africa and even in South America, LONG BEFORE the Dutch, or any Europeans ever set foot on African soil.

    “Batik” existed in Africa, well before colonialism, though the methods used consisted of knotting and clamping to create intricate designs. African-Americans brought this artform to the African-American South during the trafficking of Africans into slavery in the Americas. The African-American batik would come to be known as “tie dye”.

    “” should’ve been my first clue that I was about to read something insane and ill-informed.

  23. I love that you use African fabrics in your sewing. The prints that you have used are beautiful. I love ethnic inspired prints whether they are on trend or not. It is just part of who I am. My cousin just brought me some fabric from Zambia during his stay. I can’t wait to use them.

  24. I would love to know how you feel about the hand of this fabric. I have seen similar prints in Uganda, but all of the fabric is treated and heavily sized, so it is impossible to determine the feel of it when purchasing. After taking home and washing, most of the fabrics I have purchased there are pretty course with a rough texture. I love the prints, but would love to be able to figure out how to get a better quality of fabric there.

  25. Love all your beautiful Africa print. I have some beautiful African prints from Ghana and other West Africa countries please let me know if you need some

  26. The Dutch Wax, as sold in Africa, is really made in the Netherlands, by Vlisco.You can see the beautiful prints at There is an exhibition here in the Netherlands right now, about Vlisco:

    MMKA exhibition: Six Yards Guaranteed Dutch Design
    29 January — 6 May 2012

    As early as 1846 Vlisco served the West and Central African market with Dutch Wax textiles. From 29 January through 6 May, 2012, the Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem will present Six Yards Guaranteed Dutch Design, an exhibition about how Vlisco’s Dutch textiles became a part of various West African cultures and found their way into international fashion, the visual arts, and photography.

    The exhibition Six Yards is a tribute to Vlisco textiles: over a hundred years old, born in Indonesia, designed in the Netherlands, loved in Africa, and desired in the West. These colourful fabrics make their way to fashion shows in Paris, the markets in Ghana, and galleries in London and New York. The exhibition Six Yards focuses on all the relevant angles, from their presence and meaning in the work of artist Yinka Shonibare, to the stories in the oral tradition that have come from the fabrics.

    Dutch Wax fabrics belong in all respectsto the Dutch heritage, they are the product of our commercialism. In the mid-nineteenth century, Vlisco’s factories produced batik fabrics for the Dutch East Indies, using wax (hence the name Dutch Wax) in the process. African soldiers stationed in Indonesia brought the colourful fabrics home, where they were very popular. Since then, the textiles have been inextricably associated with Africa and have become a familiar component of West African culture. The textiles have always been sold in lengths of six yards (roughly 5.5 meters), enough for a complete outfit, such as a skirt, top, and sling or head tie. These days, Vlisco launches a new collection of fashion fabrics four times a year and designs a limited collection of clothing. The collection serves as inspiration for African women and follows the rapid developments on the continent. Vlisco has also established itself in the world of international fashion; top designers like John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier and Junya Watanabe have worked with Vlisco patterns or fragments and translated them into silk, jersey and jeans.

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