Chinelo Bally: My love for African prints

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Have you been inspired by Sewing Bee International Week? Today we are excited to interview Chinelo Bally, contestant from the second series of the Great British Sewing Bee, about her love of African print fabrics and where to buy them.

My love for African prints, a.k.a Ankara, is no secret. I adore the colour combinations, the patterns, the art and the stories they tell. These print are so interwoven into the fabrics of West African culture yet the wax print finds its roots in Indonesia. The prints tell a different story to different people and are so personal in their allure and appeal; they are given different names by different west African countries and these names are often relevant to the message the fabric is communicating; for instance, there’s the “you fly, I fly” print, worn by a newly married woman as a warning to her husband.

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I remember meeting a lady in my favourite African print shop (Hardwick’s fabrics, Green street London), we were both drawn to the same prints, I have a special place in my heart for the old classics like jumping horse and corkscrew, so we got talking, she asked me what I loved about the prints and I told her that they reminded me of my mum’s wardrobe when I was a little girl in Nigeria. In fact, I think that what I love so much about Ankara, is that they somehow manage to represent my mum. As we spoke the lady started to cry and said she felt the same way but her mother is late so the prints are bitter sweet for her.

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Images: Vlisco

“Finding African prints is really really easy nowadays. Apart from fabric shops, they are widely available on the internet however I do recommend going to a shop to see and feel the fabric live.”

When buying African prints there are a few things you have to bear in mind, firstly, if you are not an accomplished sewer, then go for something with a small print or something that doesn’t have an obviously repeated pattern; Ankara is often printed off the grain and unless you know what you are doing it can be very tricky to pattern match. Secondly Ankara comes in varying levels of rigidity so bear your design in mind and make sure the fabric is not too stiff or too soft for the desired outcome.

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Images: Vlisco

Ankara is cotton which is not suitable for every design, however the classic prints and more modern print designs are now available in silk, chiffon and jersey fabric; you can find these online.

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Images: Vlisco

You can make most styles using Ankara but be very careful when making trousers, really close fitting trousers don’t tend to work very well in Ankara; go for a softer, lighter Ankara for trouser styles.

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Images: Claire Pepper

You can read our review of Chinelo’s book Freehand Fashion (Pavilion) here. Chinelo recommends these projects (collarless blazer, double-circle skirt and mermaid-style evening gown), which lend themselves well to Ankara fabrics if you feel inspired to try them for your next project!


Chinelo Bally is a dressmaker and author of Freehand Fashion, published by Pavilion and available from all good bookshops.

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