Àdìrẹ – 'tied and dyed' indigo textiles

Produced as part of Africa Fashion

Àdìrẹ are indigo-dyed cotton cloths decorated using a resist-dying technique to create striking patterns in blue and white. They were traditionally made and worn by women throughout the Yoruba region of south-western Nigeria, West Africa. The cloths were usually made up of two strips of factory-produced cotton, sewn together to form a shape that was roughly square, and worn as wraps around the body.

Though the technique dates to the 1800s, the term àdìrẹ, meaning 'tie and dye' in Yoruba, was first used in the early 20th century, and became increasingly popular in the 1920s due to an influx of imported European cotton shirting material, which encouraged makers to experiment with pattern. Most àdìrẹ textiles could be produced quickly and cheaply in response to changing customer demand. By the 1960s, they were being tailored into other garments, such as men's shirts, and gained popularity around the world, especially in America, where the tie-dyed indigo cloth was adopted by the hippie movement. Our collection was purchased in the Nigerian city of Ibadan in the 1960s and includes a variety of different patterns, representing the fast-changing fashion for àdìrẹ.

The dyeing process
The cloths were usually prepared, and always dyed, by women. Their bright colour comes from imported indigo grains or locally-grown indigo leaves, which were fermented and mixed with water softened with caustic soda to make a dye. The cloth would be dipped into a large pot of dye, and then pulled out to allow it to oxidise – a process which could be repeated to make the colour darker. Sometimes after it had been dyed the cloth would be beaten with a mallet so it took on a sheen.

Cotton dyeing
Contemporary cotton dyeing in Nigeria, Cliff, 2017. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Creating pattern
Before dyeing, the cloths would be treated in a variety of ways to prevent certain parts of the fabric from absorbing dye. This would create the patterns revealed after the dyeing process. Raffia and starch were the two most common forms of resist-dyeing used. Tying raffia around the cloth, a process known as àdìrẹ oniko, could produce a huge variety of patterns. For example, tying small stones or seeds into the cloth would create small circles, or larger circles could be made by lifting a point of fabric and binding the fabric beneath it tightly.

Detail of an indigo resist-dyed cotton in 'moons and fruits' pattern, Ibadan, Nigeria, 1960s. Museum no. Circ.592-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A pattern formed of a specific combination of circles might be given a name; the pattern names often varied from town to town or changed over time. One example made in Ibadan in the 1960s features five rows of large circles with small circles filling the rest of the cloth, a pattern known there as olosupaeleso, or 'moons and fruits'.

Indigo resist dyed cotton in 'moons and fruits' pattern
Indigo resist-dyed cotton in 'moons and fruits' pattern, Ibadan, Nigeria, 1960s. Museum no. Circ.592-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another technique using raffia was to fold the cloth from corner to corner like a concertina and then bind it very tightly at various points. When the two pieces of dyed cloth were stitched together it created a diamond shaped pattern with alternating blue and white stripes. The broadness of the stripes could be varied by the intervals at which it was bound. When purchasing one example produced by the folding and tying method, the curators were told the design was considered 'cloth of the year' in 1964, supplanting the previously popular olosupaeleso design, which peaked in 1962.

Indigo resist dyed cotton
'Cloth of the year, 1964', indigo resist-dyed cotton, Ibadan, Nigeria, 1964. Museum no. Circ.591-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Stitch resist – àdìrẹ alabare

The term àdìrẹ alabare is used when sewing is the means to resist the dye. If the sewing has been done with raffia then it would be a form of àdìrẹ oniko. Both machine sewing and hand sewing could be used to produce patterns. Although àdìrẹ cloths were usually made by women, the cloths that used a sewing machine were made by men.

Detail of a stitch-resist, àdìrẹ alabere textile, indigo resist-dyed cotton, Ibadan, Nigeria, 1960s. Museum no. Circ.593-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Starch resist – àdìrẹ eleko

Cloths decorated by using a starch made from cassava flour were known as àdìrẹ eleko. The starch was only applied to one side of the cloth so the underside would be plain blue. Starch could be applied through a stencil or painted on to the cloth freehand using a piece of metal to create a great variety of patterns. The size and complexity of the stencils varied a great deal. One of the most common stencilled designs features a King and Queen at its centre. The image was copied from souvenirs produced in 1935 to celebrate the silver jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary.

Detail from an adire eleko starch-resist textile with King and Queen motif
Detail from an àdìrẹ eleko starch-resist textile with King and Queen motif, indigo resist-dyed cotton, Ibadan, Nigeria, 1960s. Museum no. Circ.590-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Hand painting
Hand painting was probably the most time consuming way of producing àdìrẹ and these cloths were not subject to the same rapidly changing fashions as the àdìrẹ oniko designs. The painting was done by women using chicken feathers, the mid rib of a palm leaf, and matchsticks to create different thicknesses of line. Hand painted cloths were usually divided up into squares or rectangles which would then be filled in with a variety of patterns.

Àdìrẹ eleko cloth in the Ibadan dun pattern, indigo resist-dyed cotton, Ibadan, Nigeria, 1960s. Museum no. Circ.588-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Ibadan was the centre of production for hand painted cloths. The city itself is celebrated in a common pattern known as Ibadan dun, 'Ibadan is good' in Yoruba, which shows the pillars of Mapo Hall (Ibadan's town hall) alternating with spoons. The example in our collection also has Ibadan dun written on it.

Details of adire eleko cloth in the Ibadan dun pattern
Details of àdìrẹ eleko cloth in the Ibadan dun pattern, indigo resist-dyed cotton, Ibadan, Nigeria, 1960s. Museum no. Circ.588-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cloths, particularly hand painted ones, were often signed on the hem. Two in our collection have been signed on the underside using a symbol that resembles a scorpion. One features the scorpion prominently on the front of the cloth in several places, suggesting that the woman who painted this cloth was a respected maker. Unfortunately it has not yet been possible to associate the scorpion symbol with a name.

Underside of adire eleko cloth showing scorpion 'signature'
Underside of àdìrẹ eleko cloth showing scorpion 'signature', detail of indigo resist-dyed cotton, Ibadan, Nigeria, 1960s. Museum no. Circ.588-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Today, àdìrẹ textiles continue to be a popular fashion choice, in Nigeria and more globally. The techniques have evolved to include hot wax and parrafin as the resist agents, in place of the traditional starch methods, and block-printing in place of stencilling. Yet tie-dyeing, folding and crumpling by hand are still universally popular methods of decorating textiles, an alternative to machine-generated prints.