Adire is a textile art typically made and worn by Yoruba women in southwestern Nigeria. Although the name translates as “to tie and to dye” in the Yoruba language, adire broadly refers to a variety of indigo-dyed textiles that use different resist techniques (a process of dyeing textiles where part of the cloth is protected while the other part is dyed), including stitching (adire alabere) and starch resist (adire eleko) in addition to tying (adire oniko).
The art of adire originated in Abeokuta in the nineteenth century but soon spread to other Nigerian cities. Ibadan, about eighty miles northeast, emerged in the early twentieth century as a major center of the production of adire eleko. One textile (now in the MFA Boston), Ibadandun or “Ibadan is sweet,” celebrates the prominence of the city in the creation of adire eleko. It is among the most complex of designs, painted using a dye-resistant starch entirely free-hand by a master of this art form.
Traditionally adire eleko is composed of two cloths sewn together, each with a grid of patterns in four rows of seven rectangles. A finished cloth, like this one, would have a total of fifty-six sections. Sections feature different patterns, though some are repeated. The stylized designs refer to animals, plants and everyday objects as well as proverbs and geometric motifs. Because they are hand-painted, no two cloths are exactly the same. Artists select patterns from an accepted inventory of motifs typically passed down from mother to daughter. New designs are also introduced.
Ibandandun features a pattern with architectural pillars alternating with spoons known as Opo Ile Mapo. On the wrapper here, this pattern is seen on the fourth square from left on the top horizontal row and repeated on nearly every row below. The pillars refer to Mapo Hall, the city’s neoclassical town hall built in 1945 during the colonial era. Visible on a hill in the middle of the city, the building serves as a cultural landmark. The number of spoons in the design is said to be an indication of the textile’s quality, five being superior and three the least good. Quality is judged by the skill of execution and the range and sequencing of patterns. In the spoon pattern, there are bowls on each end.
Other designs on this textile include an umbrella (Agboorun) combined with cassava leaves (Ewe Ege), seen on the top row, second from right, and Igi Odan or “market tree,” second row, on far left. The cross-hatched design at top right is Eni Pakiti, or mat. Representational motifs featuring a variety of birds, snakes and chameleons are found throughout as are plants, flowers, and leaves. At the center, on either side of the seam is a pattern with repeated triangles and dots, identified as Ayed’egbe or “The world is on its side.” All of the motifs are not only meant to be appreciated for the beauty of their design but have deeper meaning within the Yoruba worldview. Certain birds, for example, are associated with mystical powers.
Creating adire eleko
The process of creating adire eleko is labor-intensive and is exclusively done by women from start to finish. Traditionally its production involves two specialists, those who dye the cloth (alaro) and those who create the resist designs (aladire). It is typically made with imported cotton sheeting, using two lengths of fabric which, when sewn together, creates a roughly square-shaped cloth.
The starch used to paint the cloth is made from cassava flour mixed with water and then boiled with copper sulfate to form a thick paste. It is applied free-hand and on only one side of the cloth. Artists create lines in varying thicknesses using different implements. Chicken feathers or the mid-rib of a palm leaf produce the finest of lines while a matchstick might be used to create dots. The artist must have a steady hand to apply the paste evenly and ensure it doesn’t crack. Once painted, the cloth is laid out to fully dry before being dyed.
The indigo used to dye the cloth is extracted from locally grown leaves by specialist artisans. Since the 1960s, Yoruba women have also used imported synthetic dyes. The painted cloth is dipped in a vat of dye and removed. Repeated soaking is necessary to achieve the deep blue hue, as the color gets darker with oxidization each time the cloth is pulled from the vat. The areas covered with the cassava paste resist the absorption of the dye. The starch is scraped off after the dyeing process is complete. Lastly, the stiff cloth is pounded with a wooden mallet to soften it and give the fabric a slight sheen.
The cloth is commonly worn around the body as a wrapper, the ends of the cloth tied together. More recently, adire cloth is used for head-ties and to make tailored garments for men and women.
Adaptation and innovation
Despite its relatively short history, the art of adire is one of continual change and innovation adapting to shifting social and economic circumstances. Originally, adire was made with hand-woven cloth until Nigeria’s colonial government imposed taxes on locally made cloth to boost the market for British imports. The smooth surface of factory-made cloth proved well-suited for the creation of finely detailed designs with crisp lines, enabling the painted art of adire eleko to flourish in the early decades of the twentieth century. In the 1930s, some artists began using stencils made of corrugated iron to hasten the time-consuming process. This technological innovation encouraged men to practice adire eleko, since metal has traditionally been seen as a media associated with men.
After a dip in demand during the war years and into the 1950s, the production of adire eleko continued to thrive in the 1960s, when this textile was made. Nigeria’s independence after decades of British colonial rule and the introduction of new synthetic dyes and new techniques, like block printing, led to a resurgence. Today, artists continue to make adire, including Osogbo-based Nike Davies-Okundayo, who is internationally recognized as a master of the textile art. Through the four art centers she established in Nigeria, Davies-Okundayo has trained a new generation of women and men artisans.
Margaret Olugbemisola Areo, et al., “Origin of and Visual Semiotics in Yoruba Textile of Adire,” (2013).
Learn more about Nike Davies-Okundayo.
Jane Barbour and Doug Simmonds, eds., Adire Cloth in Nigeria (Ibadan: The Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, 1971).
Judith Byfield, The Bluest Hands: A Social and Economic History of Women Dyers in Abeokuta (Nigeria), 1890–1940 (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2002).
Susan Cooksey, “Tracing the Routes of Indigo: Four Textiles from West Africa,” African Interweave, Textile Diasporas (Gainesville, FL: Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, 2011).
Joanne Bubolz Eicher, Nigerian Handcrafted Textiles (Ile-Ife: University of Ife Press, 1976).
John Picton and John Mack, African Textiles (London: British Museum Publications Ltd., 1979).
Norma H. Wolff, “Leave Velvet Alone: The Adire Tradition of the Yoruba.” In Cloth Is the Center of the World: Nigerian Textiles, Global Perspectives. Edited by Susan J. Torntore, pp. 51–65 (St. Paul, Minn.: Goldstein Museum of Design, Dept. of Design, Housing, and Apparel, 2001).