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Exploring the origins of the continent’s time-honored technique and how contemporary designers are reclaiming ancient methods to create a more sustainable future.

David Nwachukwu

Dec 16, 2021

Historically, textile production has given a deep insight into the societal framework of different regions—from lines of communication among people to establishing customs and belief systems. African cloth-making is a culmination of multiple processes, of which dyeing itself forms an integral part. The intriguing thing about African textiles is the sheer diversity in methodology that exists across cultures. You see this in the way handweaving techniques vary between countries: take, for example, the silk-cotton-gold strip weaves of Ghana's Kente cloth and the hand-quilted outerwear from the Ndebele tribes of South Africa and Zimbabwe. These variations can be found in the same vein when tracing the chronology of dyeing practices in Africa.


Kofar Mata Dye Pits, Kano by Etinosa Yvonne. Photo: via @etinosa.yvonne.

West African Origins

Researchers and fashion historians have broadly cited West African communities as the originators of this practice. In the book The Essential Art of African Textiles from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, it is suggested that Senegambia, notably Senegal, was one of the first regions to experiment with stitch-resist indigo dyes, where strips of hand-spun cotton woven on a double-heddle loom were then put through a process that involved protecting parts of the cloth while the other piece was being dyed. These methods were allegedly spread across the region, with changes informed by differing traditions. The Ndop fabric, from the Bamileke of Cameroon, is one unique resist-dye creation. Other historians argue that these ancient methods have their roots in Nigeria's oldest industrial city, Kano, which was home to the famed Kofar Mata dye pits, where traditional indigo dyeing, a process of saturating the fabric with dye and burnishing them in pits, has been practiced from 1498 to date. Elsewhere, Adire, a centuries-old material involving both tie-dye and resist indigo dye techniques, is linked to the Yoruba tribe of Southwestern Nigeria. 

When it comes to the art of dyeing, a diverse viewpoint in concept largely remains due to enduring indigenous practices. Still, similarities can be found in production techniques more often than not. From Mali to Senegal and Nigeria, the age-old art mainly originated from women, who used these methods as a form of storytelling to preserve the history of their respective societies by expertly drawing out motifs in the tying styles. More interestingly, these timeworn techniques were entirely plant-based, using no chemicals whatsoever in any part of the process. But, unfortunately, the commercialization of textile manufacturing has prioritized speedy output by printing on inexpensive materials at the expense of quality and attention to detail.

A Sustainable Way Forward 

Moreover, artificial dyes pose a considerable threat to the environment, as synthetic dyes need large amounts of water to produce and apply to the cloth. Rivers and lakes are then contaminated by the resulting chemical wastewater, a product of these faux dyes. The negligence of methodical, climate-friendly fabric making has thus made once illustrious centers like Kofar Mata lose their dominance, with pits largely abandoned.

The global fashion industry is currently in a reflective state, with supply chains being revisited, manufacturing redirected towards circularity, and brands loudly making pledges towards reducing the industry's carbon footprint through the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action. As a result, there is now a greater need to embrace more ethical production systems, and Africa's original dyeing methods offer a bright way forward.

A new generation of artists, designers, and artisans wield this knowledge passed down through generations and revive the dying art form. Womenswear designer Nkwo Onwuka, whose eponymous label champions fabric upcycling by repurposing cutting table waste and employing a variety of indigo dyeing techniques, strongly believes in this shift, saying, "The Nigerian fashion industry has a unique advantage because it is young, it is still at the experimental stage with no rigid guidelines, and so we can make our own rules." She continues, "Rules that enable us to tell our own stories, to work with our artisans and preserve our traditional craft skills and rules that work better for the planet." 

Kaftans by Dye Lab. Photo: Courtesy of Dye Lab.

Maki Oh hand-painted Silk Adire. Photo: via @maki_oh

Nkwo hand-dyed Parachute Dress. Photo: Courtesy of Nkwo

Nigerian fashion designer and curator Rukky Ladoja created Dye Lab to honor these practices. The pieces, eco-consciously made in limited quantities, pay homage to the artisanal formulas of West African forebearers and blend them with ideologies from other continents, like Asia. This inspiration is evidenced in the label's range of billowing Senegalese and Japanese-style kaftans, referencing the far east's indigo origins and offering a bridge between cultures. Amaka Osakwe, creative director of Maki Oh, was driven to learn more about the traditional practice after studying Japanese styles as a fashion student and the thoughtful nature of the cloth-making process. Her modern luxury reiterations, which have storytelling as a vital component, are a mix of hand-painted and hand-dyed methods. Her motifs are carefully applied onto silk with hot wax before being sent to artisans for dyeing in Osogbo, a southwestern city in Nigeria preserving ancient adire pit systems. For Osakwe, her clothes mustn't look, feel or smell like machine prints.

Artisanship and the Circular Economy

In furthering the conversation and continued use of ancient dyeing methods, some artisans make a conscious effort to invest in textile education and economic development. For example, Cynthia Asije, through her clothing company Adire Lounge, empowers women artisans in last-mile communities by offering free skill acquisition courses in a bid to curb Nigeria's unemployment crisis. Similarly, Studio 189 sees Abrima Erwiah and Rosario Dawson preserve these indigo-making tribes by employing artisans across West Africa to create textiles in their Ghana studio. As leaders across the continent are green-lighting policies geared at reaching net-zero carbon emissions and improving the state of our climate, there is increased hope for the reemergence of the originators of the dye and a chance for these techniques to lead the circular economy.