Before the development of synthetic dyes in the mid-nineteenth century, dyes were extracted from natural sources such as plants, animals, and minerals (Areo and Kalilu, 2013). Indigo is one of the oldest known plant dyes (Goodwin, 2003). It has been used as a dye for thousands of years with each region of the world developing its own dyeing methods, beliefs, even religious ceremonies, as part of the process (Prideaux, 2007).
In Nigeria, there are over 250 ethnic groups speaking as many indigenous languages. The three most dominant are Hausa, in northern Nigeria, Yorùbá in the south-west and Igbo in south-eastern Nigeria (Findlay, 2018). All three have strong indigo dyeing textile traditions but the activity is most dominant amongst the Yorùbá, who make up approximately 21% of the population. The Yorùbás are “masters of the indigo- dyeing process. They also have the most varied methods of applying resist to cloth” (Gillow 2001, p.70).
Indigo dyeing amongst Yorùbá people falls into two categories: the total-dyed cloth, aṣọ aláró, in which the whole fabric is immersed and dyed completely in indigo and àdìrẹ, which involves creating patterns on the fabric through a variety of techniques before dyeing the cloth (Areo and Kalilu, 2013). Àdírẹ was first produced on factory milled cloth in the late nineteenth century by people in Yorùbá towns, in particular, Abẹ́òkuta, Ibadan, and Òṣogbo in southwestern Nigeria (LaGamma, Giuntini, 2008). Prior to this, the patterns were made on a locally made handwoven fabric called kijipa (Simmonds, Oyelọla, and Ọkẹ, 2016, p. 11).
The literal translation of the word àdìrẹ is to tie and to dye, a description of the original and oldest resist pattern making technique. Today the word is used in Nigeria to describe all resist dyeing techniques, including fabric dyed with synthetic dyes (Oyelọla, 2010).
Resist dyeing involves using techniques and materials to form patterns on fabric, which prevent the dye from penetrating the fabric. When the resist material is removed the pattern is revealed.
Àdírẹ cloth incorporates intricate patterns and complex symbols which reflect indigenous Yorùbá society, providing a valuable insight into Yorùbá religion, culture, folklore, and history. The patterns are passed down through generations with the cloth functioning as clothing and a means of communication, especially for Yorùbá women, because originally àdìrẹ textiles were made entirely by women. “The importance of àdìrẹ as a medium of communication and expression for women should not be understated” (Okundaye 2016, p.7).
Cloth is often neglected in art historical studies, sometimes seen as a domestic craft rather than an art form (Renne and Agbaje- Williams, 2005). “The contributions of the African continent to the history of textile use and decoration have been neglected” (Triplett and Triplett 2015, p.7) and when cloth history “is told it is rarely from an African perspective, let alone by an African voice” (Spring 2012, p.33).