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An Introduction to the Indigo Dye Styles of Western Africa

When considering indigo cultures, most people immediately jump to Japan. But actually, much like the Japanese, certain parts of Africa have a rich history of dyeing textiles with indigo. Due to the current interest in indigo, anyone who asks Google for help will encounter several hundred thousands hits for “indigo dye recipes” (still only a third compared to recipes for spaghetti bolognese or sushi).

West Africa Indigo Dyeing

There are a vast variety of vat recipes (where the indigo is fermented and dyed in the same large container) and dyeing techniques stemming from Africa; more precisely from West Africa. These ancient methods have been passed on through generations and they are indigenous to nationalities and even closer related to tribal regions of West Africa. In this article, we would like to introduce you to the some of the traditional methodologies of West African indigo dyeing, and hopefully nurture an interest in you, which might help save a dying, dyeing culture.

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West African indigo mudcloth throw. Image via Chairish.

Aside from the variations in ingredients used in the vat, there are a vast amount of dyeing techniques known to have been practiced in Africa, some of these still existing today. Those from Ivory Coast being different to those that stem from Nigeria, which further varies from the south to the north, home of the Yoruba- and the Hausa people respectively, two of the biggest ethnic groups in the whole of Africa. Due to its rich history and to it being the largest country in Africa, a large focus of this article will be on Nigeria, its people, and their dye styles.

The History

Tracing down the inception of dye styles to one time and place has proven difficult, and what’s written in the following paragraph should be taken with a grain of salt. It would hardly surprise anyone to find that these century-old traditions took place long before someone thought of documenting them. That being said, they seem to have their roots in the ancient trading city of Kano, once the Kingdom of Kano, and today the second largest city in Nigeria and one of the ten biggest cities in Africa. Kano, which is located in the North West part of Nigeria, is home to Kofar Mata, the oldest dye pits in Africa, where traditional indigo dyeing (and only indigo dyeing!) is still being practiced to this day.

The entrance to the Kofar Mata Dye Pits. Image via Mapio.

The entrance to the Kofar Mata Dye Pits. Image via Mapio.

The Kofar Mata dye pits. Image via Nick and Jays Adventures.

The Kofar Mata dye pits. Image via Nick and Jays Adventures.

Kofar Mata is said to have been discovered and documented by the famous Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta in the fourteenth century, but on a sign at the entrance gate to Kofar Mata it reads 1498 which dates its establishment to only just before the turn of the sixteenth century. One can only speculate that these dye pits might have existed before they officially opened for trade.

Kofar Mata, which is situated in the Old City of Kano, is still open for trade today, though most of the one hundred pits are filled with waste and out of use. Having been open to the public for more than five centuries now, Kofar Mata is a popular tourist destination for those interested in textiles as well as the early history of Nigeria. It’s a landmark for some of the country’s earliest export which played a significant role in the economical growth of Kano around the time of its establishment and for centuries onward.

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Finished batik textile dyed in Kofar Mata, Kano. Image via ASIRI Magazine.

Unfortunately business in Kofar Mata is far from thriving the way it used to be. As poetic as it would be to any indigo-head, the dyed garments of Kofar Mata are far from everyday-attire in Nigeria, thus making the trade highly dependent on tourism and local holidays.

In later years it has suffered due to a number of internal factors like the ongoing war with Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. To make matters worse, the government in Nigeria has favored cheap, imported textiles from Asia, which come in all shapes and colors, making it hard for the local indigo-dyers to compete, thus reducing the dye pits of Kofar Mata to nothing but a bygone of ancient African traditions. But hopefully, with the recent resurrection of traditional dyeing methods in the garment industry (indigo in particular) we can help each other shine a light on the unique and stunning garments being produced in this often neglected part of the world.

The Dyeing Methodology

We need to start small with the one thing they all have in common: indigo. Just like any other traditional indigo dyeing, the techniques of West Africa rely on the blue color from indigo, also called indigotin. In West Africa this is commonly sourced from two plants: indigofera and lonchocarpus cyanescens.

Indigofera tinctoria plants. Image via Africa Museum.

Indigofera tinctoria plants. Image via Africa Museum.

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lonchocarpus cyanescens plants. Image via Africa Plants.

Most people are already familiar with indigofera so allow me to focus on the latter, unpronounceable side kick, which the Hausa people refer to as Talaki, and Yoruba refer to as Elu. (We’ll stick to talaki for the time being, but it’s really all the same.) Talaki derives from the same family of legume as indigofera, but is more commonly found in West Africa than indigofera. Talaki is typically harvested just before flowering, as this is when the indigotin in the plant is at its peak level. This typically takes place during or at the end of the rainy season.

The Hausa people are the largest ethnic group in West Africa and the predominant ethnicity in the aforementioned city of Kano. The dyeing technique practiced in the pits of Kofar Mata relies on indigo from talaki, but whether sourced from indigofera or talaki is negligible. Some opt for fresh leaves, but generally the West Africans are known to make balls of the gathered leaves, flowers and stems which is first macerated to pulp in a big wooden mortar and then left to dry for two to three days in the sun.

Dried plant balls for dyeing. Image via Inside My Mother's Closet.

Dried plant balls for dyeing. Image via Inside My Mother’s Closet.

These balls measure approx. 10-12 cm in diameter, and can still be found at various markets in West Africa today. Before adding indigo to the pits they typically make a solution of water and hardwood ash lye – an alkaline useful for the dyeing process. They leave the solution to steep for three days in the sun before adding the indigo to the pit, roughly one hundred kilograms is needed for one pit. The cotton cloth is then ready to be dyed. They will typically leave the cloth for another two to three days and submerge it throughout to ensure an even dyeing result. Dyed cloth is then removed to dry and oxidize for twenty-four hours without rinsing.

The above technique covers West African indigo dyeing as it has been practiced through up to seven generations in the pits of Kofar Mata, Kano. But there are some variations in the ingredients added depending on country and region. In Ivory Coast, they’re known to vary their recipe with the bark of the Morinda tree which, according to ambassadors of the technique, should contribute to the fermentation process plus help achieve a darker and richer blue, often referred to as an aubergine cast. But the darkness isn’t just dependent on adding Morinda to the vat. It’s a combination of things, like strength (the amount of indigo put into the vat), freshness and number of dippings. Traditionally, it was also common for the West Africans to beat the indigo cloth with wooden tools which had the effect of pressing the cloth as well as applying a desired sheen to the cloth. Sometimes additional indigo would be beaten into the dry cloth.

Types of Decorative Dyeing Techniques

Aside from the variations in dye compositions, there are a wide variety of decorative dyeing techniques to be found in West Africa. The Yoruba people of the south of Nigeria are very well known for their intricate and very decorative dyeing techniques. Until the 1960s, when synthetic dyes were introduced, natural indigo had been the only dye used by the Yoruba. Being nude is an abomination and synonymous with madness in Yoruba culture. Wearing clothes is very closely related to Yoruba identity.

Yoruba dancers in Nigeria with indigo dyed clothing and skin.

Yoruba dancers in Nigeria with indigo dyed clothing and skin. Image via Thomas L. Kelly Photos.

The dyers take certain steps prior to the actual dyeing process in order to achieve a particular pattern in the (finished) dyed cloth. Yoruba people are known to produce two types of dyed textiles: amure, the totally-dyed and adire, the patterned or resist-dyed cloth – the adire, coined from Yoruba words adi (to tie) and re (to dye) is the one I’ll focus on in this introduction, as it would take another full article to go through all the different techniques. I’ll try to touch on a couple of them in this introduction: adire oniko (tied resist) and adire alabare (stitch resist).

Notice the intricate design in these stunning examples of the Yoruba-dyeing technique adire alabare (or stitch resist technique) indigo-dyed cloth. Image via Die, Workwear!

Notice the intricate design in these stunning examples of the Yoruba-dyeing technique adire alabare (or stitch resist technique) indigo-dyed cloth. Image via Die, Workwear!

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Another stunning example of the Yoruba dyeing-technique adire. This cloth dyed is with the method adire oniko (tied resist technique). Image via Die, Workwear!

Adire oniko, or the tied resist technique, is basically the same technique as the one we in the western world refer to as batik or sometimes simply tie-dye, except the Yoruba method is made only from natural indigo. Dyers fold the cloth to make a larger pattern and then tie it together with various components like stones, twigs, and sticks to create the desired pattern.

Adire alabare, or the stitch resist technique, is a much more intricate process, depending on the time and effort put into the stitching pattern. Once again, the dyers fold the cloth to achieve larger and symmetrical patterns. Then they add the stitching with a raphia thread, resisting the indigo dye, traditionally sewn by hand to create all sorts of detailed patterns in the cloth.

After the dyeing process, the stitches are removed with a sharp blade to reveal the pattern. Bear in mind that the cloth used is similar lightweight shirting material, which makes this process both difficult and time-consuming as the artisan has to be careful not to rip the finished cloth in the process. You can see stunning examples of both these techniques in Abrina Erwiah and Rosario Dawson’s brand Studio 189.

An example of the Adire Oniko dyeing technique with resist stitching. Image via Inside My Mother's Closet.

An example of the Adire Oniko dyeing technique with resist stitching. Image via Inside My Mother’s Closet.

We hope to see more brands, in the future, implement these methods or outsource their dyeing to West African countries (particularly the stitch resist technique with which you can accomplish some most magnificent dye patterns) to keep these methods appreciated and alive. West African indigo dyeing is still a relatively unknown and seldom covered topic, but we hope our indigo primer has fueled your interest to further dive down the West African indigo pit.