Yoruba 'adire eleko' cotton wrapper from western Nigeria
This 'adire eleko' cloth, decorated with the 'Olokun' design, was produced by a female Yoruba indigo-dyer during the 1950s or 1960s. The 'Olokun' design is named for the Goddess of the sea and wealth and is still amongst the most popular of all adire cloth designs. The Yoruba people view Olokun as female, while in other regions of West Africa, Olokun is either male and female, depending on the region.
Cloths like this were worn by either men or women, wrapped around the body and secured by twisting the ends of the cloth together. This is still the most common method of wearing adire cloths today. Since 1960 however, when Nigeria gained independence, the popularity of adire cloth has increased enormously. It is now also used for European-style clothing and head-ties, while special cloths are made for religious celebrations. This particular example may have been created for personal use or to sell at the market.
'Adire' refers to a cloth that has been patterned by the technique of resist dyeing with indigo. Yoruba women extract dye from the 'elu' (lonchocarpus cyanescens) vine. After collecting the vine leaves, the women pound them into a pulp, and form fist-sized balls. The process of dyeing that follows is lengthy, but essentially involves extracting the dye stuff from the 'elu' leaves as described, mixing them with a mordant (metallic salt dye fixative) extracted from ash, and then dyeing the cloth. The technique is taught to their daughters from a very young age by Yoruba mothers. During the dyeing, the women regularly make offerings to the Goddess Iya Mapo, who assists them throughout the process.
'Eleko' refers to the resist dye technique that involves the application of cassava paste to the surface of imported cotton cloth. The paste is made from cassava flour (or lafun) which is boiled with alum to form a thick starch. The design is hand painted, the paste being applied to the cloth wiith either a brush or a feather quill. During dyeing, the areas covered with dried starch paste resist the absorption of the indigo dye. When dyeing is complete, generally requiring several dips in the dye vat, the starch is scraped off leaving the cloth slightly stiff. The dry cloth is then placed over a flat log, and beaten with a wooden mallet which produces a high sheen on the cloth from the large amounts of indigo dye used. The introduction of the starch paste technique enabled the production of cloths with much more detail. 'Adire eleko' cloths, particularly cloths like this example which is more finely detailed than stencilled cloths, are quite sought after as they now rarely appear on the market.
The cloth is part of a collection of West African textiles, spindles, hand spun yarn and a thorn carving collected in West Africa by Dr C Marion Petrie. Dr Petrie was an employee of the British Colonial Service in Nigeria and Ghana between 1957 and 1966.