The Art of Adire: Adire Eleko

Adire Eleko:

Adire Eleko Stencil (John Wise/Gasali Adeyemo)This first section on adire eleko proposes to revisit the research on the general topic of adire and then locate the eleko design—temporally and geographically—within the context of Yoruba culture, before briefly addressing the making of adire eleko and touching on the problems associated with resist dyeing.

W. Rea writes that, “[a]dire is a product of Yoruba engagement with the modern world. Designs were inspired by the changing worlds of Ibadan and Abeokuta. The technique leant itself to inventiveness and flexibility, as well as illustrating local proverbs and using established motifs, designs often refer to topical events, and make reference to everyday life.” (Rea, Yoruba Textiles, Cloth and Tradition in West Africa, 6) In terms of function, adire designs may be said to be on a par with Trinidad calypsos, the purpose of which is often commentary on sociopolitical and other events in the country. 

Meanwhile, Bukola Adeyemi Oyeniyi corrects the record on the meaning of the term “adire” when he clarifies related terms. Writes Oyeniyi,  “The first is the name Adire itself. The nearest English interpretation given Adire, over the years, has been tie- and dye. Effectively, the name, Adire, even to the Yoruba, merely describes the process and procedures through which Adire is made. Adire, as a word, is a shortened form of saying: ‘Adi Aso, a si ‘Re si nu Aro’, which means, “The cloth is knotted and soaked in indigo dye”. Oyeniyi then deals with what he regards as the artificial distinctions between types of adire, asserting Oyeniyi asserting that there is one technique, adire, which “are mainly different designs based on patterns and depth of dye.” (117) such as oniko eleko, and alabere.  

Margaret Areo and Razaq Kalilu, in Origin of and Visual Semiotics in Yoruba Textile of Adire, examine “[t]he symbols of Adire which are created, accepted, and standardized aspect of the people’s culture, [and] are drawn from history, legends, myths, proverbs, foklores and deep observation of the environment of this traditionally deeply religious people.” They go on to note that the mode of transmission of these “are [from] mothers to daughters within dyeing families from generations to generations”  and lament that “with external influences and internal developments within the Yoruba region, the origin and meaning of these symbols have been lost to many and particularly the few remaining Adire artists.” (Abstract, 22) Areo and Kalilu dismiss the theory of accidental discovery of resist dyeing, put forth by Polkoff and Buhler, by invoking “Yoruba philosophy and traditional history. Stories encoded in Ejiogbe the first of the 256 chapters of the Ifa divination oral literature [which] credited the origin of patterned dyeing in various hues to Orunmila, the Yoruba deity of wisdom and divination and the Ifa exponent, who was divinely inspired to produce patterned dyed cloths using the material technology of certain birds, Agbe, Aluko, Odidere, Akuko, Lekeleke and Agbufon.” (23)

Rea distinguishes between two schools of adire eleko—the Abeokuta, signified by the use of zinc stencils, which zinc came from “the internal lining of European packing cases (tea chests) that were arriving in Nigeria … at the turn of the century” (Rea 6); and, the Ibadan, characterized by its “free hand painting” (Rea 6) style; Areo and Kalilu concur,  adding that “the freehand- painted type which is believed to have probably originated at Idi-Aro area of the town between 1910 and 1915.” (Adire in South-Western Nigeria: Geography of the Centres, 364) Rea further connects with Areo and Kalilu who argue that the enduring nature of adire cloth is attributable to “the creative spirit of the artist and the dynamism of the art tradition itself”. (Origin of and Visual Semiotics in Yoruba Textile of Adire, 25) They then trace the line of development and continuity from “the hand stitched indigo dyed prototype which was done on Kijipa” evolving “into the freehand starch painted type, Adire Eleko, which originated at about 1910 (Beier 1957)”—which Rea terms the Ibadan school of adire. (23) Furthermore, Areo et al make the argument that “[t]he Adire freehand starch patterned type has also further evolved into the contemporary blocked, stamped and free-form designs, which now come not only in indigo but also in a kaleidoscope of synthetic dye of various tints and hues. So versatile and dynamic is this art tradition that four major types of Adire with fourteen distinct variants based on the techniques used in preparing the cloth prior to dyeing were identified by the turn of the twenty - first century (Wolff 2001: 51). Areo (2004) has further identified six broad categories.” It is likely that one may construe these categories as Oyeniyi has, merely as “different designs based on patterns and depth of dye.” (117) Solomon Gausa, in Tie-Dye (Adire) among the Jukun People, further agree with Rea and Areo et al when he writes that, “Abeokuta, Ibadan and Osogbo are the main centres of Adire, although they could also be found among the Hausas and along the west coast (Senegal and Sierra Leone).” Like Areo, Gausa dates the design only back to 1910, primarily and specifically “among the Lagos and Abeokuta dyers”. (3) Gausa then adds more process information which will be the included in the next post.

Maiwada et al, as well as O. O. Braide et al, (16) indicate that the eleko design is made with cassava resist paste; (160) however, Areo et al state that “corn starch paste is used for Adire Eleko”. (26) Hannatu Alheri, like Maiwada, points to the usage of cassava paste, indicating that the paste is applied to the cloth with a feather or broom straw, and that the designers are Yoruba women called aladire. I. B. Kashim et al accept both corn starch and cassava paste as acceptable stating that “The qualifying term eleko (means the one with corn pap or cassava paste) indicates the type of resist used.” (78) Abraham E. Asmah et al contribute further knowledge when they explain that adire eleko involves “a cooked soluble flour paste … applied to the fabric instead of hot wax.” (2) In Cassava Resist Dyeing: Traditional Dyeing Techniques in a New Environment, Jill Becker notes the addition of copper sulfate to the boiling cassava flour starch so that the eleko resist solution can last longer. In contrast with Becker, Gausa speaks of using “white alum” to prevent the cassava paste from dissolving in the dye vat. (3) Amubode A. Adetoun et al, in Consumers’ Acceptability and Creative Use of Local Fabrics as Graduation Gown for Primary School Pupils, informs that in addition to alum, candle wax may be added to the mix for the purpose of increasing the strength of the cassava paste resist. (82)

Finally, in the essay “Knowledge, attitude, and practice on the use of personal protective equipment by traditional resist fabrics workers in Abeokuta, Nigeria”, which is focused on occupational safety and potential health hazards stemming from resist dyeing, W. L. Akintayo addresses some of the unforeseen issues that may arise from the various techniques. Writes Akintayo, “[r]esist fabric techniques such as tie- dye, batik, adire-eleko e.t.c is a manual procedure that directly exposes workers to various synthetic dyes and chemical used. Adeakin (2009) states that skin diseases, such as allergic contact dermatitis, irritant dermatitis and inflammation of mucous membranes, result from contact with synthetic dyes and chemicals, particularly acids, alkalies, oxidizing agents, detergents and solvent.” (27) The essay emphasizes the need for the use of proper protective equipment, such as goggles, gloves, face masks, and aprons, (29) to protect the health of resist dyers.  Akintayo also emphasizes the need for proper disposal of resist dye related supplies and chemicals, such as copper sulfate, mordants, and synthetic dyes in order to protect human health and the environment. (29) 



Adetoun, Amubode Adedotun, Kehinde Kabirat Adebowale, and Bridget Itunu Awosika. Consumers’ Acceptability and Creative Use of Local Fabrics as Graduation Gown for Primary School Pupils. Review of Arts and Humanities. December 2015, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 81-89. American Research Institute for Policy Development. DOI: 10.15640/rah.v4n2a9.

Akintayo, W. L. Knowledge, Attitude and Practice on the Use of Personal Protective Equipment by Traditional Resist Fabrics Workers in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Kuwait Chapter of Arabian Journal of Business and Management Review, Vol. 2, No.7, March. 2013.

Alheri, Hannatu. Development of Resist Decorated Fabrics for Fashionable Clothing in some Selected Parts of Kaduna and Kano States, Nigeria. M. A. Thesis, Faculty of Environmental Design, Department of Industrial Design, Ahamadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria. October, 2014.

Areo, Margaret Olugbemisola and Razaq Olatunde Rom Kalilu. Adire in South-Western Nigeria: Geography of the Centres. African Research Review, Vol. 7 (2), Serial No. 29, April, 2013: 350-370. DOI:

——. Origin of and Visual Semiotics in Yoruba Textile of Adire. Arts and Design Studies, Vol. 12, 2013.

Asmah, Abraham Ekow, Vincentia Okpattah,  and Samuel Teye Daitey. The Innovative Wet-Dyeing Batik T-Shirt Technique. International Journal of Academic Research and Reflection, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2016, pp. 1-9.

Becker, Jill. Cassava Resist Dyeing: Traditional Dyeing Techniques in a New Environment. Kingston, Jamaica: University of Technology.

Braide, O. O. and S. A. Adetoro. Cassava Flour as a Resin Printing Paste for Textile Patterns, Abeokuta, Nigeria. Transnational Journal of Science and Technology. August 2013 edition vol. 3, No. 8, ISSN 1857-8047.

Bukola Adeyemi, Oyeniyi. Poverty Alleviation and Empowerment of Small-Scale Industries in Nigeria: The Case of Tie and Dye Makers Association. Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Political Studies and Governance, Faculty of Humanities, University of Free State, South Africa. Accepted 11 June, 2013. African Journal of History and Culture. Vol 5(6), pp. 114-125, August, 2013. DOI: 10.5897/AJHC11.006.

Gausa, Solomon. Tie-Dye (Adire) among the Jukun People. Mgbakoigba: Journal of African Studies, Volume 4, 2015. African Journals Online. 

Hann, M. A. Resist Dyeing and Patterning—An Explanation of Alternatives. School of Design, University of Leeds, UK.

Kashim, I. B., B. E. Adiji, and E. B. Oladumiye. The Impact of Cottage Textile Industries on Students’ of Textile Designs in Tertiary Institutions in South Western Nigeria. Education Research Journal, Vol 2(93), pp. 75-86, March, 2012.

Fact Files—Textile Facts Final. Horniman Museum & Gardens.

Maiwada, Salihu, S. A. Dutsenwai, and m. Y. Waziri. Cultural Industries and Wealth Creation: The Case of Traditional textile Industry in Nigeria. American International Journal of Contemporary Research, Vol. 2, No. 5; May, 2012, pp. 159-165.

Omoniyi, Tosin. The Famous Adire Merchants of Abeokuta. Daily Trust. Feb 24 2013 5:00AM.

Seattle Art Museum. Yoruba Collection.

Rea, W. Yoruba Textiles, Cloth and Tradition in West Africa. 5th September—1st March, 2012. University of Leeds International Textiles Archives.

Wise, John. Traditional Yoruba Techniques of Adire Eleko and Tie-Dye Workshop with Gasali Adeyemo - Stencil for Batik.