Adire eleko

So one of the perks with having a Yoruba (Ibadan-born) mother who is a skilled textile artist means you grow up spending your school holidays busying yourself with cassava paste and indigo! Yes, these are the materials required to design wonderful adire eleko textiles.

An adire eleko cloth created in either the 1940s or 50s. It was designed free-hand using a feathers and broom-sticks. This cloth is named "Olokun".
An adire eleko cloth created in either the 1940s or 50s. It was designed free-hand using a feathers and broom-sticks. This cloth is named “Olokun”.

Adire eleko is a specialist craft that originated in approximately 1910, is unique to Yorubaland in south-west Nigeria and traditionally practiced by women (they designed and dyed the cloth). Yoruba people are known for their crafts and also known for travelling around and trading in their crafts. Today, adire eleko can be seen in other West African countries where Yoruba descendents have settled.

The cassava paste acts as a resist when the cloth is dipped into the indigo dye (the more dips the deeper the blue), allowing for wonderful hand-drawn batiks. Before the cloth is finished and ready for sale, it will be hit with a mallet, softening it and creating a lovely sheen, owing to the indigo dye.

Dying of the adire eleko cloth in a vat of indigo. Image from my mother's book.
Dying of the adire eleko cloth in a vat of indigo. Image from my mother’s book.
Malleting of the adire eleko cloth to give the indigo sheen. Image from my mother's book.
Hitting cloth with a mallet to give the indigo sheen. Image from my mother’s book.

Traditional pattern layouts would constitute 8″ x 8″ squares, or 8″ x 11″ squares, or by measuring approximately two by one and a half hands span. Forming what looks like a grid with differing motifs (some motifs do repeat on the cloth).

This is a pre-dyed cloth (named Ibadan-Dun). The cassava paste patterns were drawn by hand using a feathers and broom sticks. This cloth was created in 1991 for an exhibition my mother carried out in Manchester UK.
This is a pre-dyed cloth (named Ibadan-Dun). The cassava paste patterns were drawn by hand using a feathers and broom sticks. This cloth was created in 1991 for an exhibition my mother carried out in Manchester UK.

The thing I love about adire eleko is that each cloth has a special name which is representative of the motifs and patterns which make it up and although the motifs may seem like abstract symbols to the uninformed, they too have their own name/meaning/proverb. So, people are really telling a story with their clothes. If you are into semiotics then adire eleko textiles are great pieces to study!

Olokun or “Goddess of the sea” is a popular design and consists of two lengths of fabric sewn together; each fabric consists of 2 x 5 large squares with rectangles at each end and smaller squares at the bottom. The squares and rectangles are filled with abstract designs that represent animals, plants and other everyday objects (such as an Ipon “Laddle” as shown in the design above) or phrases (such as Ayed’egbe “The world is on its side” as shown in the design above). With all Olokun designs there will be a central square with the four-legged stool motif. The O.K. symbol is also common within the design, however some consider it lacks sophistication and pay more for Olokun without this motif.

Ibadan-Dun or “Ibadan is sweet or pleasant” is one of the most complex of the traditional adire eleko designs and traditionally made up of 4 x 7 squares (although in my photo it shows 4 x 6 squares).

Mo
Mapo Hall motif which is symbolic of the Ibadan-Dun design

The cloth gets its name from the Mapo Hall motif (a prominent building on a hill in Ibadan, built in 1945 and acting as a town hall). The Mapo Hall pillars and spoons motif also symbolizes the skill and quality of the piece: 5 spoons being top, 4 good, and 3 least good. The cloth that was created for my mother’s exhibition and now belongs to me has four spoons in its design.

I found it rather interesting that designers often kept the symbolic theme going when it came to their signature, which they would show in the form of a sign at the edge of the cloth.

As you can probably imagine, creating some of these intricate designs freehand can be very time-consuming.

An adire eleko artist. Image from my mother's book.
Adire eleko design being done by hand using a feather. Image from my mother’s book.
Adire eleko stencilling. Image from my mother's book.
Adire eleko design by stencil. Image from my mother’s book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This led to the development of stencils which also saw the entrance of men into this craft that up until the 1930s had been controlled by women.

A selection of stencils owned by my mother. They are made from iron.
A selection of stencils owned by my mother. They are made from corrugated iron.
Iron roof stencil used for adire eleko design. This design was used for the coronation.
Corrugated iron stencil used for adire eleko design. This stencil shows an image of Britain’s King George V and Queen Mary, celebrating the silver jubilee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stencils with eyeipe
Stencil with eiyepe (bird)
Reverse stencil eiyepe
Reverse stencil eiyepe (bird)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The town of Abeokuta was renowned for using stencils for their designs, while the people of Ibadan largely hand painted the paste. I asked my mum about this and she said most Ibadan people would not have liked to cross the line of their ancestors craft work, hence why they carried on by hand.

Examples of stencilled adire eleko designs.
Examples of stencilled adire eleko designs.
A comb-like tool can be used to scrape away some paste, giving an effect like the one above in the shell.
A comb-like tool can be used to scrape away some paste, giving an effect like the one above in the circle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1991 my mother held an exhibition and ran several workshops in Manchester, England, dedicated to the art of adire eleko. I found this book she wrote to accompany the project.

Book accompanying my mother's exhibition in 1991.
Book accompanying my mother’s exhibition in 1991.

It has some great photos of not only the textiles but also people in Nigeria designing and dying the cloth (some I have included in this post). There is also a step-by-step guide on how to do adire eleko yourself (including how to make the natural indigo dye).

There is so much more that can be said about adire eleko and I am sure I will touch on it again in other posts!

*Unless otherwise stated all the images are of textiles and stencils owned by my mother or now in my possession.

 

 

 


As well as speaking to my mother about these pieces and adire eleko in general, I did my own exploration and came across these references:

Adeniran-Kane, Toro. (1991) “Adire-Eleko. Yoruba Traditional Textile and Indigo Dyeing Techniques”

Areo, Margaret Olugbemisola, et al. (2013) “Origin of and Visual Semiotics in Yoruba Textile of Adire”. http://www.iiste.org/Journals/index.php/ADS/article/viewFile/7566/7614

Stylianou, Nicola Stella. (2012) “Producing and Collecting for Empire: African Textiles in the V&A 1852-2000” (http://ualresearchonline.arts.ac.uk/6141/1/Stylianou,_Nicola_CCW_final_thesis.pdf)
 
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6 thoughts on “Adire eleko

  1. Thank you for such a wonderful post. I’m an just getting started in creating some textiles using the cassava paste and some of the adire techniques. Your post give me some additional insight into the traditional ways.

    Thanks again for such a great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. It is lovely to hear from others interested in similar things and of course wonderful to hear my blog has been helpful and insightful!

      Like

  2. Brilliant write up. Many thanks. Pls will it be possible to get a copy of your Mum’s book in Nigeria? I will be much obliged. Once again, many thanks for your informative work.

    Like

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