Design and make a talking textile

Produced as part of Africa Fashion

Explore fabrics from across Africa that tell stories about the histories and cultures of the people who made them. Have a go at designing and making a fabric pattern that tells a story about you. Designed for ages seven and up.

Fabrics, patterns and stories

Ghanaian artist El Anatsui said that "cloth is to the African what monuments are to Westerners". He is saying that in many African cultures, from Kenya to Nigeria, fabric is as important as a big building or statue. It can tell stories, and mark moments of history.

Picture showing three figures around a table. The border is maroon, with pink and orange flowers
Aunty, Mum and Me Talking About My Fabric Collection, tile panel, by Mawuena Kattah, 2016, London, England. Museum no. C.30:1 to 9-2020. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Àdìrẹ fabric

These pictures show 'àdìrẹ' fabric which is historically made by the Yoruba of Western Nigeria.

This fabric is often indigo blue, as the dye is made from a plant called indigo. The patterns are particular to a local area – this way, when people see the cloth, they know where it was made and the story it tells.

Three types of blue adire cloth – the first has a repeated flower pattern in light blue, the middle one is a white and blue tie-dye-esque pattern, and the third contains circular patterns
Left to right: Starch resist indigo-dyed cotton cloth, 1960 – 64, Nigeria. Museum no. CIRC.587-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Indigo resist dyed cotton cloth, 1960 – 64, Nigeria. Museum no. CIRC.591-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Indigo-dyed starch cotton cloth, 1960 – 64, Nigeria. Museum no. CIRC.588-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This fabric was made in the town of Ibadan in South-Western Nigeria. The pattern is called Ibadandun which means 'Ibadan is good' in the local Yoruba language.

What shapes and patterns can you see in this fabric?

Indigo dyed cotton that has been hand painted with a starch resist. Made of two strips of cotton sewn together to form a shape that is roughly square. The cloth is divided into squares which are filled with patterns. 'Ibadandun' design.
Indigo-dyed starch cotton cloth, 1960 – 64, Nigeria. Museum no. CIRC.588-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Can you spot any pictures of animals and birds? Can you see five pillars in some of the squares? These represent the pillars of the town hall in Ibadan.

Left: Blue adire pattern representing five pillars. Right: Blue adire pattern containing light blue birds
Indigo-dyed starch cotton cloth, 1960 – 64, Nigeria. Museum no. CIRC.588-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

How are àdìrẹ patterns made?

Historically, àdìrẹ cloth was mainly made by women, using techniques passed down from their mothers and grandmothers.

A person crouching over some orange, black, blue and white cloth which they are staining
Àdìrę textile staining, 2017, Nigeria. © Wikimedia Creative Commons

The patterns are produced using various methods which prevent the dye from reaching the cloth. When tied with raffia it is called àdìrẹ oniko.

The pictures and patterns we have been looking at were painted onto the fabric using a starch paste, this is often made from a root vegetable called cassava. This technique is called àdìrẹ eleko.

When the paste is dry, the fabric is dyed. The paste protects these areas from the dye, so when it is removed the patterns and pictures are magically revealed! The intensity of the colour depends on how many times it is dipped in the dye pot. The more times, the darker the colour.

Blue adire pattern featuring stars and triangles
Indigo-dyed starch cotton cloth, 1960 – 64, Nigeria. Museum no. CIRC.588-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Àdìrẹ fabric and fashion

Although the àdìrẹ technique is very old and reflects the traditions of the Yoruba, the fabric is used in fashion around the world and is often worn to celebrate Yoruba community and culture.

Man wearing blue and white adire piece, with a woman wearing blue adire mini dress with white sleeves
Kofi Ansah 'Indigo' Couture 1997 - Narh & Linda. Photo © 1997 Eric Don-Arthur

Ghanaian fashion designer Kofi Ansah was inspired by àdìrẹ in his designs. What would you design using àdìrẹ fabric?

Make a talking textile

Have a go at designing and making a fabric that says something about you, inspired by the àdìrę technique. Instead of cassava paste we will use a paste made from flour and water, and instead of indigo dye we can use fabric paint.

You will need:

  • Pencil and paper or sketchbook
  • White fabric
  • Flour and water
  • An icing bag
  • Fabric paint (indigo or blue)
  • A brush

Let’s make!

1. Sketch some ideas

Are there any pictures or patterns that say something about you? It could be a pattern on your favourite socks, a picture of your favourite person or place – or the shape of your pet hamster!

Mark out a set of four squares on some paper and draw your ideas in each (like the Ibadandan pattern). Keep the shapes simple so they are easy to re-create on your fabric.

Sketch of a square split into four. First quarter has a drawing of leaves, second quarter has zigzags, third quarter has stars and fourth quarter has a hamster
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

2. Transfer your design onto the fabric

Once you are happy with your design, draw it onto your fabric with a pencil. Don't forget to mark out the outline of the boxes!

3. Mix your paste

Put around 4-heaped tablespoons of flour into a bowl and gradually add water until your paste is the consistency of thick custard.

Use an icing bag to pipe your designs.

A hand piping the flour mixture onto the fabric, in leaf shapes.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Don't worry about any blobs or wiggly lines – this will just add to the interesting pattern of your fabric.

4. Wait for your paste to dry

This is the bit that requires patience! Your paste has to be completely dry before dyeing, so you may need to leave it overnight.

5. 'Dye' your fabric

When the paste is dry, brush on your fabric paint. Make sure that you paint right up to the edges of the dried paste lines.

A hand brushing blue paint over the material
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

6. Reveal your pattern!

When the paint is dry, pick off the dried paste to reveal your fabulous pattern!

The final blue pattern – four squares, each containing a pattern. The first quarter contains the outline of a leaf, the second contains a zigzag outline, the third contains a star outline, and the fourth contains the outline of a hamster
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Follow the instructions on your fabric paint for fixing the colour. Have a think about what you could make from your fabric. Perhaps a wall hanging? Where would you display your creation?

More talking textiles

Here is another cloth from Africa with a story to tell. It was made by the Ewe in Ghana. What patterns can you see?

Textile made up of 19 lengths of strip woven cotton each approximately 10cm wide. A portion of the centre has supplementary weft float patterns depicting leaves. It is burgundy, yellow, green, orange and grey in colour
Strip-woven cotton, mid-20th century, Ghana. Museum no. CIRC.321-1964. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Ewe 'kente' cloth is made by stitching strips of woven fabric together and often includes a motif, or image. The motif can represent a proverb (meaning a piece of advice).

This cloth has a pattern of leaves that represent the Ewe proverb: 'I will not survive if I am plucked from the tree'.

Close-up of the detailing of burgundy, orange, red and yellow strip-woven cloth. contains leaf-shaped embroidery
Strip-woven cotton, mid-20th century, Ghana. Museum no. CIRC.321-1964. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Make your own kente inspired design

Have a go at weaving a design inspired by Ewe kente cloth, using strips of paper. Then add a motif to your weave that represents a proverb or story – or something important to you.

You will need:

  • Coloured papers
  • Pencil, scissors and ruler
  • An idea for a motif

Let's make!

1. Make a paper loom

  • Cut a square of paper that is 24cm x 24cm.
  • Fold the paper in half and draw lines from the folded edge. The lines should be 3cm apart. Leave a 2cm border at the open end.
  • Cut along the lines from the folded edge. Dont forget to leave the 2cm border!
Hand cutting lines into a piece of brown paper
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

2. Prepare your paper strips for weaving

Cut 9 strips of paper: 3 strips that are 3cm wide and 6 strips that are 1.5cm wide. The strips should be different colours.

3. Weave your paper

Weave your paper strips through your paper loom. Trim off any long bits and glue the ends down.

Hand weaving pink, blue and green paper through the slits in the brown paper, to create a pattern
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

4. Add your motifs

Cut and paste or draw your motifs onto your paper weave. This example was inspired by the proverb 'a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush' and has included shapes of birds and bushes.

A final woven green, blue and pink pattern, with the shapes of birds and trees
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Share your creations using #VAMFamilies.

Visit the V&A's Africa Fashion exhibition for more design inspiration.

Background image: Auntie, Mum and Me Talking About my Fabric Collection, tile panel, by Mawuena Kattah, 2016, London, England. Museum no. C.30:1 to 9-2020. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London