Adire is a traditional textile craft made and worn by the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Derived from the Yoruba words, adi (to tie) and re (to dye), Adire means tie and dye. The original versions were indigo-dyed and decorated with resist patterns. However, modern Adire accommodates an array of dye shades and hues. This tedious and delicate art can be traced back to the 19th Century. The First Adire is said to have emerged in Abeokuta. This city was known as the centre for weaving, cotton production and indigo-dyeing in the nineteenth century.
Old Blue Origins
At first, Adire was made from a hand-woven cloth called Kijipa that was tie-dyed indigo (Elu). Women specialised in the art, and would work with new cloth as well as refurbish existing pieces with tie-dyed patterns. According to the stories sited in the first chapters of the Ifa divination oral literature, the Yoruba deity of wisdom and divination – Orunmila – is to credit for the patterned dyeing origin. It’s believed that Orunmila was inspired by material technology of six birds known as ‘Agbe, Aluko, Odidere, Akuko, Lekeleke and Agbufon … who were divinely inspired and permitted to respectively use indigo, camwood, palm oil, chalk and variegated colour pigments.’
When the British introduced imported cotton in the 20th Century, they realised that it was cheaper than the hand-woven cloth they were using. It was also more comfortable than the rough Kijipa they were using. The added benefit of this soft material easily absorbing their dye-patterns, meant that the artists could make more precise designs.
As mentioned earlier, the traditionally dye is made from the Lonchocarpus Cyanescens plant, locally known as Elu or Elu-Aja. The Elu leaves are pounded and then left to dry in the sun before being rolled up into balls. This is then mixed with local chemicals and allowed to ferment between three weeks and six months. This process produces the indigo colour used in the dying process.
The cloth is then submerged in earthenware pots filled with the dye. It would then be pulled out so that it can oxidise. The process is then repeated, with the design and desired hue tint dictating the number of repetitions. For example, the darker the cloth needs to be, the more repetitions it will undergo. Sometimes, the fabric would be pounded with a mallet to achieve a glossy finish. Before the cloth is dyed, it has to be treated to create patterns using a variety of resist-dying methods.
Traditionally, Yoruba women were in charge of the entire process – from designing, dying and selling the product. In particular, there were two specialists that were crucial in the Adire craft. There was the Alaro, who controlled the production and marketing of the cloth. Then there was the Aladire, who was the professional decorator and creator of the resist patterns. The patterns appear as white or soft blue designs on the deeply saturated indigo background. The Aladire had different techniques to cause this effect and create unique patterns.
The oldest forms were known as Adire Oniko and Adire Eleko. The former uses raffia to resist the dye by tying or wrapping the cloth. The raffia is tied around individual pieces placed strategically across the fabric to create the pattern. Objects include pebbles and maize kernels. Sometimes, the raffia would be used to tie the fabric alone which has been twisted or folded onto itself.
The latter uses starchy maize or a cassava paste made from cassava leaves (Ewe Ege) known as Adire Elekois. This paste is hand-painted onto the cloth using a wet feather or a brush. Once the designs are complete, they dry under the sin before being placed inside the dye solution. While Abeokuta is the Adire trade centre, a city in the North known as Ibadan developed their own group of women artists that specialised in Eleko. In fact, the Ibadandun (meaning “the city of Ibadan is sweet”) is a popular design to date.
There are additional techniques that came about after experimentation. One being Adire Alabere, which uses the spine of the raffia palm to stitch the cloth before dying in order to create finely-detailed motifs. The stitching is then taken out after the dying process is complete, although some artists choose to leave it in. With use, the gradual wear and tear would slowly reveal the pattern concealed by the stitching. Lastly, there is the Adire Batani which uses zinc stencils to apply the resistant starch. Whichever method was utilised, the decorator made two identical fabric rectangles that were sewn together to make a square cloth. The pattern usually didn’t’ have a focal point of interest and was a repeated configuration that covered the entire fabric.
A running theme in this series thus far is that all designs featured on textiles have meaning. Adire patterns are not different. They represented an identity, with each ethic group having unique patterns that distinguished them from outsiders. Moreover, it’s believed that only certain families would have the honour of producing the cloth. From flora and animals, to celestial bodies and man-made objects, the figures used in design were symbolic reflections of Yoruba life. Adire Eleko employed quite a variety of stylized representation of certain animals. For example. The parrot was used to symbolise wealth and wisdom, while the crested crane and ostrich represented leadership and royalty. The bat (Adan) was a significant symbol as it was often used in sacrificial ceremonies. Other significant animals include:
- Crocodile (Oni) – The ability to live on land and in water makes it a high spiritually-valued figure.
- Chameleon – Its adaptability element signifies flexibility, invincibility or abundance.
- Snake – Symbol of reincarnation, guidance, wrath and ‘stress-free’ life.
- Snail – Perseverance, calmness and tenacity. It also signifies unity because its shell always follows it.
- Fish – signifies, success.
Akoko leaves, and guinea corn (Oka baba) were some of the common flora figures. The former are prominent in Yoruba life because they are used in coronation rituals. The guinea corn have a variety of uses. Their leaves are fodder for livestock, the stalk is used in medical blends, and its seeds make a paste that is a staple food for the Yoruba. Not to mention, the seeds are used to make an alcoholic wine called Burukutu. Thus, the guinea corn symbolizes divine provision.
Each motif has a name and a meaning. Additionally, the combination of motifs used on one cloth influenced the name of the whole piece. It’s important to note that different towns had different names for the same design. Furthermore, the name of a motif can change with time. If you want to learn more, Storytelling Through Adire: An Introduction to Adire Making and Pattern Meanings by Allyson Aina Davies details the patterns and symbols with their stories/meaning. You can also read more about individual motifs and complete cloth naming here.
Ebb & Flow
With a vast network of Adire spread across West Africa, it was hard to envision a dip would ever occur in the trade. For instance, ‘The Bluest Hands: A Social and Economic History of Women Dyers in Abeokuta (Nigeria)’ by Judith Byfield indicate that Senegalese merchants were known to buy up to 2000 wrappers a day in the 1920s. Nevertheless, World War II (1939-1945) brought restrictions on the movement of the cloth. Moreover, the end of the war brought cheaper printed into the local market. Fewer youth were being trained in the craft by the 1950s and the cloth was slowly getting a reputation of being a ‘poor people’s cloth’. Interestingly, the Hippie era of the 1960s started to garner interest for the Adire cloth. According to Sapelle, ‘the indigo cloth summed up the vibe and spirit of the swinging 60’s.’ The era also came with easily-accessible chemical dyes from Europe. This lead to a colour revolution with the Adire cloth.
Like many of the cloths featured in the series so far, some changes were introduced in the Adire production process. For starters, technological advancements gave men their opportunity to join the craft. The 1930s introduced the sewing machine and zinc stencils into Adire production. It was common belief in society that women weren’t capable to run such innovations and was better left to the men. For example, the hand sewing on the Adire Alabere was done by women but if a sewing machine was to be used, a man would have to take over.
In modern times, a cheaply-produced Adire known as Kampala was made available. It gained popularity during the Kampala Peace Conference which was set up to help settle the Nigerian Biafra War. This new cloth wasn’t made by designated families, but by individuals who lacked prior knowledge of the craft. In addition, cassava paste was replaced by paraffin or hot wax as a resist agent. The designs were affected as well. Some patterns were created by randomly sprinkling hot wax onto cloth that was to be dyed. Alternatively the cloth would use mainstream tie-dye processes. The processes were undeniably faster but it cost them their in-depth significance.
Nigerian designers have recognised the significance of the traditional Adire and the need to preserve the significant aspects of the cloth while adapting it to new-age design. The likes of Tiffany Amber and Deola Sagoe have used it to create collections while several designers have made it their brand mission to incorporate it into their DNA. Artists that commonly use Adire include Ade Bakare, Demure by Denike and Post Imperial. The most notable designer to use the Adire textile has to be Maki Oh.
Despite the changes, it is still possible to purchase traditionally hand-made, indigo Adire from older women artisans in Ibadan and Abeokuta. Nike Davies-Okundaye – considered the custodian of the Adire craft, also has the Nike Center for the Arts and Culture in Oshogbo where she trains students in the traditional art form. But even Nike admits that the traditional art form is fading. She has made the effort to collect traditionally made Adire cloth because she fears it will soon disappear from the Yoruba scene completely.