Adire is the name given to indigo dyed cloth produced by Yoruba women of south western Nigeria using a variety of resist dye techniques. Adire translates as tie and dye, and the earliest cloths were probably simple tied designs on locally-woven hand-spun cotton cloth much like those still produced in Mali. In the early decades of the twentieth century however, the new access to large quantities of imported shirting material made possible by the spread of European textile merchants in certain Yoruba towns, notably Abeokuta, enabled women dyers to become both artists and entrepreneurs in a booming new medium. New techniques of resist dyeing were developed, most notably the practice of hand-painting designs on the cloth with a cassava starch paste prior to dyeing. This was known as adire eleko. Alongside these a new style was soon developed that accelerated decoration by using metal stencils cut from the sheets of tin that lined tea-chests. Another method was to use sewn raffia, sometimes in combination with tied sections, while other cloths were simply folded repeatedly and tied or stitched in place. The basic shape of the cloth is that of two pieces of shirting material stitched together to create a women’s wrapper cloth. Most of the designs were named, and popular designs included the jubilee pattern, (first produced for the jubilee of George V and Queen Mary in 1935), Olokun or “goddess of the sea”, and Ibadadun “Ibadan is sweet.”
In the 1920s and 30s adire was a major local craft in the towns of Abeokuta and Ibadan, attracting buyers from all over West Africa but by the end of the decade problems over quality caused by the spread of synthetic indigo and caustic soda, coupled with an influx of new less skilled entrants into the craft, led to a collapse in demand from which it never really recovered. The more complex and beautiful starch resist designs continued to be produced until the early 1970s, but despite a revival prompted largely by the interest of US Peace Corp workers in the 1960s, never regained their earlier popularity. Today simplified stencilled designs and some better quality tie & die and stitch-resist designs are still produced, but local taste favours multi-coloured wax-resist cloth usually known as “kampala,” though a few people still call this adire. Good examples of the older styles are getting harder and harder to find in Nigeria, and in a few years time these masterpieces of indigo dyeing may have disappeared altogether.
Barbour,J. 1970. “Nigerian ‘Adire’ Cloths” – Baessler-Archiv, Neue Folge, Band XVIII – if you can find it this gives the most detailed account of cloth designs.
Barbour,J. & Simmonds,D. eds. 1971. Adire Cloth in Nigeria. (Ibadan)
Beier, U. 1997. A Sea of Indigo, Yoruba Textile Art (Peter Hammer Verlag, Wuppertal)
Byfield, J. 2002. The Bluest Hands: A social and economic history of women dyers in Abeokuta (Nigeria), 1890-1940 (Heinemann/ James Currey)
Poliakoff, C. African Textiles and Dyeing Techniques (1982) Chapter 4
National Museum of African Art. (1997). Adire: Resist-Dyed Cloths of the Yoruba.
Simmonds,D., Oyelola, P, and Oke, S eds. Adire Cloth in Nigeria, 1971-2016 (Available from firstname.lastname@example.org)