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Adire - The History (Part 1)

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Adire (AH-dih-ray) is a Yoruba term describing resist-dyeing fabric, traditionally with indigo. This process involves keeping some areas of the cloth from absorbing dye - tying, stitching, covering areas with a dye-resistant liquid such as starch paste or wax, or clamping the cloth between carved blocks of wood - to producing a negative image which, in the case of adire, would be a white pattern on a blue background.

Resist dyeing is probably the oldest method of producing nonwoven patterns on fabric using dyes; it has been found in almost every culture on the planet outside Europe, where it was not adopted until the 18th century (and then only the paste-resist and clamp methods). Conversely, in West Africa, tied resist was used as early as the 11th century (an adire oniko cap was found in the Tellem caves - see photo below); stitch resist may be nearly as old. But adire eleko, or paste resist, was not used in Africa until the early 1900s.

Adire oniko cap c.1100, made by the Tellem peopleWhile adire is the specialty of Nigeria's Yoruba, whose skill in indigo dyeing has been renowned (and widely traded in the region) for centuries, it is also done in other regions, sometimes with camwood or kola dye. Rene Boser belives the technique may have originated spontaneously in several areas and that the Soninke and Mandingo may have helped diffuse patterns during their travels through Gambia, Ivory Coast, and Mali. (Click here for an excellent image of a Dogon woman wearing an adire oniko kijipa.)

In earlier centuries adire appears to have been highly regarded; when the tunic pictured below was acquired in the 1640s, its German collector said it was the kind given by the "king" in a "knighting" ceremony (i.e., given to warriors by rulers). But by the mid-1950s, adire was considered a "budget" fabric worn only by less well-off women and by men as sleeping cloths, and as a way to recycle faded cloth. Not until the 1960s did adire become fashionable in West Africa, when expatriate African and African-American men started using adire for shirts as attractive way of celebrating their heritage. Adire eleko has also become a means of cottage-industry income for Moslem women who are rarely permitted to leave their homes.

How has adire changed since the Diaspora?

  • Synthetic dyes and colors other than blue
  • Multicolor effects
  • Lighter, tightly-woven commercially made fabric substituted for heaver, coarser homespun; commercially printed cottons, brocades, and other luxury textiles also used
  • Use of sewing machines to produce adire alabere - more detailed patterns
  • New patterns such as "Chieftancy tree" (Igi oye)
  • Embellishment with machine embroidery - late 20th century
  • Introduction around 1910 of adire eleko (painted, stenciled or stamped paste or wax resist) 

(culled from www.hartcottagequilts.com)

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