Adire – blue blood of the Yoruba

Indigo dyeing in Southwest Nigeria

Adirẹ (pronounced ah-deer-ay) is a type large indigo-dyed cloth, decorated with bold resist-pattern designs. They are a traditional garment of the Yoruba in western Nigeria.

Indigo has long been a favoured colour of the Yoruba, and their marketplaces are filled with this blue dye. In the past Adirẹ cloths were worn wrapped around body and secured by tucking one end below the other. Since Nigerian Independence in 1960 Adirẹ have become even more popular and are often worn as wraps, headbands or scarves or made into tailored European garments.

The work of Adirẹ making is traditionally carried out by women, though men now take part in certain processes. Yoruba girls learn skills in painting and tying patterns from their mothers at an early age. Abẹokuta is a centre of such work as it has been for many years, though much work is now done in other towns like Ibadan.

Adire cloth sellers (Nancy Stanfield)

Women wearing and selling Adirẹ in 1960s Ibadan (Nancy Stanfield collection)

To some degree Adirẹ making has become a widespread and popular craft, with many people making cloths for their own use or to sell in their local markets. However, in Abẹokuta the work is carried out on a large scale by specialized craftsmen and women. An Adirẹ workshop can be easily identified in any town by the blue mud-floor, stained with indigo. In some sections of Abẹokuta, large blue-floored compounds are filled with Adirẹ makers.

The designs on Adirẹ cloth are made by resist dying. Parts of the cloth are protected before it is immersed in the dye bath. The dye produces the background colour, while the protected areas remain undyed and thus leave a pattern on the cloth.








There are two methods of Adirẹ dying.

The first involves folding or bunching the cloth and tying or stitching the pattern in with raffia or cotton thread. This method is called Oniko by the Yoruba.

Apron made from Adirẹ oniko cloth

Apron made from Adirẹ oniko cloth (Nancy Stanfield collection, accession number 284/1998/11, height 724 x width 695mm).

In the second method, called Ẹlẹkọ, the design is painted on with a dye resistant starch made from cassava flour. The starch can be painted by hand or applied using a stencil. The stencilling is often done by men, while painting, tying and stitching are done by women.

1960s dress made from Adire eleko cloth

1960s dress made from Adirẹ eleko cloth (Nancy Stanfield collection, accession number 284/1998/15, height 930 x width 685mm)

Adirẹ can be found in an impressive variety of designs, and since the addition of fast dyes in the 1960’s, they also come in a variety of colours such as red, green or fast-dye blue. The craft is still very much alive, and new designs are constantly emerging.

The style and character of Adirẹ patterns is, to a large extent, determined by the method of production. Thus, patterns can be divided into five main types: tied and sewn, machine stitched, folded and tied, stencilled, free-hand painted.

Tied and Sewn: Designs made in this way are thought by many people to be the most authentic and attractive. This is probably because it is the earliest known method for resist dying. The simplest shape to tie is a circle. Thus circles of various sizes and arrangements are nearly always a feature of tied and sewn Adirẹ. Raffia can be used to make thicker bands and cotton thread to make fine circles. Tying and stitching are often employed on the same piece of cloth to produce a combination of straight lines and circles.

Machine stitched: This method is chiefly employed by men in Abẹokuta. Older designs consist of vertical horizontal and diagonal straight lines. However this method has become more popular over the years and the variety of designs has expanded to include more complicated patterns.

Folded and tied: This method is very cheap, quick and easy and produces abstract diagonal or horizontal patterns. However, it appeals to sophisticated tastes. This is largely because it became a popular shirt fabric for expatriate men in the early 1960’s, which popularised the material among the middle and upper classes.

Stencilled: The previous three methods are limited in their variety of design by the methods of tying and stitching, which tends to favour abstract, symmetrical patterns. The use of a dye resistant starch to create the pattern allows for more elaborate and pictorial designs. Stencils, which are usually made and used by men, are cut from metal squares and used to create a repeated motif. For example, one popular stencil motif depicts a large key.

Freehand painted: This method of Adirẹ decoration began around 1910. The patterns have been handed down from mother to daughter, and considering the freedom the method allows, it is surprising how little painted designs have changed. Hand-painted Adirẹ are considered luxury items, and their chief centre of manufacture is Ibadan.

The cloths are always divided into squares, before being decorated according to a particular style or ‘theme’. An example of one of these themes is the Olokun, which means ‘life is sweet’ and is a name for the god or goddess of the sea. It consists of two rows of five large squares with rectangles at each end and twelve small squares at the bottom. The central squares of all Olokuns contain a four legged stool. Tops, mats, plantains, matches wire and the word ‘OK’ are also common in this type of painted design.

Recommended reading

Simmonds, D; Oyelola, P; Oke S (Eds). Adire cloth in Nigeria: 1971 – 2016

For copies contact: Doig Simmonds

Adire cloth in Nigeria 1971 - 2016