When you think about African textiles, chances are your mind’s eye conjures up a dazzling rainbow of vibrant reds, yellows, blues and greens – gorgeous shades to brighten even the drabbest of days. But Adire fabric, produced by the Yoruba women of south western Nigeria is distinguished from other African materials by its unique and regal indigo colour. Adire, literally meaning ‘tie and dye’, is produced by tying and dyeing material in different ways to create a variety of striking patterns in deep blue and white.
The Origins of Adire
The tradition of resist- and tie-dyeing pre-dates African ‘wax prints’, going back centuries, with the earliest known example from the Dogon kingdom in Mali in the 11th century. As a distinctive textile type, Adire first emerged in the city of Abeokuta, Nigeria, a center for cotton production and weaving, in the nineteenth century. Originally locally-woven white cloth (teru) was tied to produce simple patterns and dyed blue with elu (indigo) from locally grown elu leaves. At the start of the 20th century however, huge quantities of shirting material imported from Europe gave Yoruba women the opportunity to experiment and so, as a consequence, more complex artistic designs emerged.
Rather than simply tying the material before dyeing it, hand painting, as well as natural substances like pebbles, seeds and feathers were used to create beautiful, decorative patterns. Stencils made from the metal lining of tea chests were also used to craft a variety of intricate and distinctive effects.
Historically, textiles, including Adire cloth were so much more than the fabric with which to make clothes. They represented a specific identity, with each ethnic group distinguished from other groups by a unique pattern, enabling members to easily detect outsiders. Reportedly, only people from particular families were entitled to participate in the production of Adire cloth, as it was regarded as an integral part of that family’s heritage.
For a while, the production of Adire cloth flourished and it was traded as a valuable commodity throughout Africa and beyond.
The Ebb & Flow of Adire cloth
Commerce in Adire cloth was at its peak in the 1920s and 1930s but then started to decline as a result of the use of synthetic dyes, caustic soda and the influx of less skilled artisans.
Interestingly, in the 1960s, trade picked up during the Vietnam War when the cloth was regarded by the US Peace Corps based in Nigeria and the western hippie generation as an iconic symbol of peace, freedom, protest and free-spiritedness.
In those days, Adire cloth was made into clothes and bags, used as bed sheets, wall hangings and throws. And so the indigo cloth summed up the vibe and spirit of the swinging 60’s.
The Making of Adire cloth
Although the production of traditional Adire cloth involves the use of a natural blue dye, there are countless variations in production and style.
The preparation and dyeing of Adire cloth was traditionally undertaken by groups of women. Cloth was dyed using local, fermented elu or indigo leaves in huge earthenware pots which were dug into the ground. Submerging cloth into the dye and then removing it, allowed it to oxidize and become blue; the more often the cloth was dipped into the dye, the darker it would become. To produce a glossy finish, the fabric was pounded with a mallet.
The city of Ibadan was well known for producing adire cloths with eye-catching hand painted designs, usually signed with a symbol by the artist who created the piece. Highly labour intensive, the hand painting was typically done by women using chicken feathers, palm leaves and matchsticks to create a range of patterns. The pillars of the city’s town hall and spoons are a classic feature in the Ibadan version of Adire cloth.
Olokun, goddess of the sea is the name given to the jubilee pattern, first produced in Ibadan in 1935 to mark the jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary
In the production of Adire oniko, raffia is tied around hundreds of single corn kernels or tiny stones to produce small white circles set against a contrasting rich blue background. To create more elaborate designs, the cloth is twisted and tied on itself or folded to produce a striped effect. A particularly beautiful example of Adire oniko, was known as olosupaeleso because of its depiction of moons and fruit.
In this version of Adire, raffia is sewn onto the fabric in different patterns before dyeing takes place. The raffia palm is stripped, and the spine then stitched into the fabric and removed after dyeing. Custom dictated that hand sewing was done by women but if a sewing machine was used, men took on this part of the process.
To produce the eleko design, cassava paste is painted onto the fabric in order to resist the dyeing. Traditionally chicken feathers, calabashes carved into different designs were used to create the distinctive design. In more recent times, stencils have been widely used in the production of this cloth.
Adire Textile Today
Out of widespread circulation for decades, Adire cloth is now making a triumphant comeback, as West African and European designers incorporate it into their contemporary collections, ans stylish women around the world are lapping it up. With advances in textile dyeing, the range of dramatic designs can be further enhanced with bold (and subtle) colours and used not only on clothing, but bags, accessories, soft furnishing accessories and art pieces. Salvaged from the ashes of oblivion, a crucial part of Yoruba history and culture has been preserved for posterity.