What makes Adire really special is the intricate designs, which is the result of hand painted work carried out on the fabric.
Perhaps more than any art form, the Adire textile reflects the culture from which they come.
Adire are indigo resist dyed cotton cloths made by women in south-west Nigeria in Yorubaland. Resist-dyeing involves making a pattern by somehow manipulating other sections of the fabric to keep them from absorbing dye.Some of the clothes used to be hand painted with patterns that have very significant meanings.
The motifs and designs are well-represented in various forms and shapes over time. The designs however tell a story of a particular culture from the very past but could have changed over time due owed to the influence of other culture and the colonial era. The patterns are in form of stylised representation of animals, plants, abstract patterns and everyday objects.
Adire patterns represent an identity, with each ethic group having unique patterns that distinguished them from outsiders. Moreover, it’s believed that only certain families would have the honour of producing the cloth. From flora and animals, to celestial bodies and man-made objects, the figures used in design were symbolic reflections of Yoruba life. Adire Eleko employed quite a variety of stylized representation of certain animals.
For example. The parrot was used to symbolise wealth and wisdom, while the crested crane and ostrich represented leadership and royalty. The bat (Adan) was a significant symbol as it was often used in sacrificial ceremonies. Other significant animals include:
•Crocodile (Oni): The ability to live on land and in water makes it a high spiritually-valued figure.
•Chameleon: Its adaptability element signifies flexibility, invincibility or abundance.
•Snake: Symbol of reincarnation, guidance, wrath and ‘stress-free’ life.
•Snail: Perseverance, calmness and tenacity. It also signifies unity because its shell always follows it.
•Fish: signifies, success.
Each motif has a name and a meaning. Additionally, the combination of motifs used on one cloth influenced the name of the whole piece. It’s important to note that different towns had different names for the same design. Furthermore, the name of a motif can change with time.
At first, Adire was made from a hand-woven cloth called Kijipa that was tie-dyed indigo (Elu). Women specialised in the art, and would work with new cloth as well as refurbish existing pieces with tie-dyed patterns. According to stories, the Yoruba deity of wisdom and divination; Orunmila, is to credit for the patterned dyeing origin. It’s believed that Orunmila was inspired by material technology of six birds known as Agbe, Aluko, Odidere, Akuko, Lekeleke and Agbufon which were divinely inspired and permitted to respectively use indigo, camwood, palm oil, chalk and variegated colour pigments.
Akoko leaves, and guinea corn (Oka baba) were some of the common flora figures. The former are prominent in Yoruba life because they are used in coronation rituals. The guinea corn have a variety of uses. Their leaves are fodder for livestock, the stalk is used in medical blends, and its seeds make a paste that is a staple food for the Yoruba. Not to mention, the seeds are used to make an alcoholic wine called Burukutu. Thus, the guinea corn symbolizes divine provision.
When the British introduced imported cotton in the 20th Century, they realised that it was cheaper than the hand-woven cloth they were using. It was also more comfortable than the rough Kijipa they were using. The added benefit of this soft material easily absorbing their dye-patterns, meant that the artists could make more precise designs.