Yoruba people have enjoyed a longstanding relationship with indigo dye for centuries. “The Yorubas are masters of the indigo dyeing process”. (Gillow, 2012)
Kijipa is the earliest known indigenous Yoruba fabric, made of local hand spun cotton, woven on an upright single heddle loom or a narrow-strip double heddle loom and dyed with indigo.
In C19th Yoruba towns in south-west Nigeria Oshogbo, Ibadan, Ilorin, Oyo and Abeokuta, Yoruba women responded to newly imported European commercial woven cloth with a unique indigo dyeing technique called, àdìrẹ. Although the word literally means “that which is tied and dyed” it is more of a generic word for the indigo dyeing process which has evolved over time and incorporates different techniques which create patterns by resisting the dye. After the pattern work is complete the fabric is immersed in the indigo dye many times to achieve the deep indigo blues prized by Yoruba people.
Àdìrẹ elejo is made by tying seeds in the cloth before dyeing.
Adirẹ alabẹrẹ is one of the oldest forms of àdìrẹ and was originally made using hand spun and woven cloth. The cloth is folded and stitched to create a resist pattern. The early alabẹrẹ patterns were created with hand stitching with raffia to create very definite strong marks. More modern patterns are created using machine stitch which creates more subtle patterns.
Àdìrẹ oniko is where the cloth is tied with raffia.
Àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́ko comprises intricate cassava paste resist patterns applied through stencils or freehand before indigo dyeing. Stencilled àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́ko is said to have originated in Abeokuta and freehand àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́ko from Ibadan. Both were produced from original freehand drawings.
Àdìrẹ alabela is a more recent àdìrẹ technique, where candle wax is used to create a resist.
One of the most prominent practitioners of àdìrẹ practitioners is Chief (Mrs) Nike Davies-Okundaye. Nike was brought up amidst the traditional weaving and dying practice in her native village of Ogidi-Ijumu, Kogi State, in Western Nigeria. Okundaye. Nike began weaving at the age of six and was introduced to àdìrẹ textiles, indigo dyeing, weaving, painting and embroidery by her aunt, great grandmother and grandmother, who at the time, was the leader of cloth weavers in the community. Nike has taught àdìrẹ workshops and exhibited internationally and created four art centres in Nigeria which continue to offer free training to young artists in àdìrẹ and other art forms including performing arts.
Nike is also the owner of the largest art gallery in West Africa, Nike Art Center, based in Lekki, Lagos. Nigeria and contains over 7,000 artworks. I’ll write separate posts about the gallery and more about Nike and her own work.
I am very grateful to Nike who generously gave me access to her amazing collection of vintage àdìrẹ textiles and spent time explaining the Yoruba names and meanings of some of the patterns.
The ability to withstand adversity is represented in the popular ewé ẹgẹ́ (cassava leaf) motif.
A motif like olokoto, which means circle of life reminds us that life is circular. This references the Yoruba believe that life does not end with death but continues in another realm or another cycle.
A design called Èégun-ẹja meaning fish bone means “don’t bite off more than you chew”.
I’m on my way to Abeokuta and Ibadan, home to àdìrẹ ẹlẹ́ko. It will be interesting to find out if anyone still practices these techniques and uses natural indigo dye.
Carr, R. (ed.) (2001) Beyond Indigo: Adire Eleko Square, Patterns and Meanings. Lagos, Nigeria.
Clarke, D. (2002) The art of African textiles. United Kingdom: Grange Books.
Davies, A. (2014) Storytelling Through Adire: An Introduction to Adire Making and Pattern Meanings. Lagos : A Davies.
eds. E.P. Renne and Babatunde Agbaje-Williams (2005) Yoruba religious textiles. Ibadan: BookBuilders.
Gillow, J. (2012) African Textiles Colour and Creativity Across a Continent. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
eds. Simmonds, D, Oyelola, P and Oke Segun (2016) Adire Cloth in Nigeria.
Adire African Textiles
Gallery of African Art
The Horniman Museum
Royal Albert Memorial Museum
Victoria and Albert Museum