Batik or Ankara fabric? One product, so many names...

How do you refer to a Vlisco-cloth? Do you call it a ‘batik’, an ‘ankara’, a ‘kanga’, a ‘chitenge’, a ‘kitenge’, an ‘African wax print’, a ‘wax Hollandais’, or simply a ‘Vlisco’? Since West African market women managed to turn our wax prints into icons symbolizing the ‘joie de vivre’ of an entire continent, our materials have become known under a very wide range of names. Yet, what is a ‘ankara’ in Nigeria, a ‘kanga’ in Tanzania, or a ‘shweshwe’ in South Africa is often quite different. They may have different ancestors (sometimes far exceeding the history of the original Vlisco fabrics), they may even be based on an entirely different production technique. What binds these products, is that fact that they are recognised as meaningful clothes which look like they have been wax-printed, like the colourful Vlisco-fabrics that have been embraced by so many African households.


Whilst some of these terms refer to the original Vlisco product or traditional African fabrics that have been created for hundreds of years, some refer to counterfeits. They may look the same from a distance, but are manufactured in alternative ways. For instance, a real traditional Kente can only be worn by a very few, but printed copies have made Kente-lookalikes available to a much larger group of people.

Similarly, the Vlisco factory in the Netherlands is the only factory in the world that still uses its original wax-production method. As these fabrics have been dyed in a bath, they carry a similar color intensity on the front and back sides. In later phases of the dyeing process, the cracking of the wax leads to the typical crackle-patterns that can be recognised in many Vlisco wax prints. Counterfeits may mimic this craquelure-effect, but often use digital prints to facilitate quick and cheap production. Instead of using layers of wax and printing, rinsing, drying and dying the material in various stages, they print all their colours at once.

Glossary of African prints

To make things more complicated, Vlisco has developed a range of products, all based on its own industrial wax technique. This is why you will find various original wax prints in our shops, referred to by different names, like Super-Wax, WaxWax and block prints.

To help you find a way through the wood of related terms, we have attempted to set up a small glossary of African print fabrics. It is by no means complete, but may help you distinguish the various types of fabrics somehow associated with Africa. Some refer to Vlisco-fabrics, some refer to Vlisco-cloths plus a lot of others which may look similarly, some refer to African fabrics that may be completely different.

‘Adire’    tie-dye cloth, term from Nigeria
‘Agbada’  ‘iro’ for men (Nigerian term, Yoruba)
‘Ankara’   batik-inspired, industrially produced, colorful cotton cloths (term in West Africa)
‘Aso oke’  traditional hand-loomed cloth, usually woven by Yoruba-men (formal clothing)
‘Batik’  ancient Javanese/Asian art form of waxing and dyeing cloths by hand
‘Boubou’ pagne for women (West Africa)
‘Bogolan’  see ‘Bògòlanfini’
‘Bògòlanfini’ handmade Malian cotton fabric traditionally dyed with fermented mud
‘Buba’  blouse that goes with the ‘iro’
Bubble Wax’  a Vlisco-cloth emphasising the effects of the cracks in the wax, creating a camouflage effect
‘Caftan’ see ‘Boubou’
‘Chitenge’  see ‘Kitenge’ (term from Malawi, Namibia and Zambia)
‘Dutch wax’   common name or Vlisco wax print, term used in English speaking countries
‘Fancy fabrics’ imitations, costly designs are printed digitally, using engraved metal rollers or a rotary screen-printing process
‘Gele’   matching head-tie with the pagne (Nigerian term, Yoruba)
‘Imiwax’   see ‘Fancy fabrics’
‘Iro’  a quality ‘pagne’ (Nigerian term, Yoruba), usually worn with a ‘gele’
‘Java print’ see ‘Fancy fabrics’
‘Kaftan’  see ‘Boubou’ 
‘Kanga’ wrapper from the Great Lakes region, with a border along all four sides (‘Pindo’), and a central part which differs in design (‘Mji’). It is of a thinner material than a Kitengi and is used as a skirt, head-wrap, apron, pot-holder, towel and much more.
‘Kente’  traditional Akan-fabric of interwoven silk and cotton cloth strips, traditionally only worn by kings (Ashanti-Kingdom, Ghana)
‘Kitenge’  colorful piece of fabric, worn by women and wrapped around the chest or waist, as a headscarf or a baby sling. Like the Vlisco wax fabrics, the kitenge are traditionally made as batik-inspired wax-print. These days, most are roller printed. The cloth is a bit thicker than a kanga, only has edges on one long side and often features local sayings (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Liberia, Rwanda, and the DR Congo)
‘Lappa’ see ‘Pagne’
‘Le fancy’  see ‘Fancy fabrics’  
‘Le legos’  see ‘Fancy fabrics’
‘Mji’  central part of the Kanga
‘Nwentoma’ see ‘Kente’
'Pagne’  rectangular colorful garment, often wrapped around the waist - formal or informal, depending on the type of material used
‘Pindo’  border along all four sides in a Kanga (Swahili)
‘Roller print’ see ‘Fancy fabrics’
‘Sejeremane’ see ‘Shweshwe’ (Sotho)
‘Shweshwe’  printed dyed cotton fabric widely used for traditional South African clothing, associated with Lesotho's King Moshoeshoe I, "Moshweshwe". Originally dyed indigo, these days the fabric is manufactured in many colours, and characterised by geometric patterns.
Super-Wax a Vlisco-cloth made in an extended wax-dye process, printed on both sides of the fabric, featuring a two-or-more-coloured crackling effect
‘Ujamani’  see ‘Shweshwe’ (Xhosa)
‘Vitengi’ plural for chitenge/kitenge (Swahili)
‘Vlisco’  producer of cloths made with its original industrial wax techniques
‘Wax Hollandais’ common name or Vlisco wax print, term used in Francophone countries
WaxWax a Vlisco-cloth featuring different prints on each side of the fabric
‘Wrapper’   see ‘Pagne’
‘Zitengi’  Vitengi (Tonga)