Traditional Textile Art: Tie Dye in West Africa

 Tie and Dye Traditional Textile Art

Many different cultures accross the world have used tie and dye techniques for treating textiles for many centuries, and even thousands of years. Over the next articles, I will take you through some of the ancestral techniques used in Asia (Japan, India, Thailand), Africa and maybe even Latin America !

I hope you enjoy it !

Tie Dye Cloth

West Africa

When I visited the south of Morocco in 2012, I was gobsmacked by some tie-dye textiles I found there. Absolutely marvelous traditional cloth-binding techniques that used natural or sythetic dyes to create incredible designs.

I cannot remmember the name that was given to this technique but after some research I found out that its name in Sierra Leone is Gara and in Nigeria, in the Yoruba tribe, it is Adire. I am sad to say that I found very little information on this textile art in other countries, so if you do have any information, please share it with us !

As with any tie and dye technique, Gara and Adire techniques use thread to bind bundles of fabric together before dyeing the cloth. Tie and dye fabrics can be found throughout Western Africa, from Senegal to Nigeria including Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Benin.


The most popular traditional dyes used with this technique are indigo and kola nut dyes.

Many cultures have a tradition of indigo dyeing because of the exceptional quality and permanence of the dye. Common indigo is native to India but was introduced in Africa by the Europeans ; Philanoptera cyanescens, or Yoruba indigo is native to West Africa and is called “Gara” in native Sierra Leone language. Hence the name of the technique there.

Source: The Traditions and History of Indigo Dyed Textiles in Sierra Leone, 2011, click here for the PDF version.

Traditional Indigo Dye

In Nigeria, the dyeing was done in large earthenware dye pots which were partially sunk into the ground. The dye used was made either from indigo leaves which grew locally or imported indigo grains.

Indigo is not soluble in water. To make it soluble, the leaves were collected into balls and allowed to ferment, thus creating “white indigo”. The white indigo was then added to water softened with caustic soda and the cloth would be dipped into the dye and then pulled out. The white indigo quickly oxydises with oxygen in the air and reverts to the insoluble, intensely colored indigo. This process would then be repeated, the more times a cloth was dipped the darker it would become. Sometimes after it had been dyed the cloth would be beaten with a mallet so it took on a sheen.

Source: Victoria and Albert Museum on Adire

Kola Nut

Used alone, the nuts yield a medium brown dye. When a cloth is immersed in kola and then over-dyed with gara, or indigo, the color ranges from a dark green to a greenish black.

Unlike the indigo dye, the preparation of kola requires a considerable amount of physical strength and stamina :

Once several gallons of the nuts are gathered, they are placed in a large mortar and finely crushed using a heavy wooden pestle, and then added to water with wood ashes which serve as a mordant or fixative. Besides being tedious to make, the kola-nut dye bath does not remain usable for long. Because of this, the cloths to be dyed were planned and prepared well ahead of time, with as many pieces as possible sharing the vat.

It is possible to combine brown kola dye with indigo blue gara by first dying a cloth in the kola, and then binding parts of it so that when it was immersed in the indigo, the dye could not access some areas, creating spectacular effects and colours.

Related image


Source : AfricaText

Adire are indigo resist dyed cotton cloths that were made by women throughout Yorubaland in south-western Nigeria. Cloths were made up of two strips of factory produced cotton shirting sewn together to form a shape that was roughly square. They were generally worn by women as wrappers. One of the most important factors in the popularity of adire during the 1960s was that a large number of cloths could be produced quickly and cheaply in response to changing customer demands. It has now however fallen out of favour.

Cloths were usually prepared and dyed, by women and treated in a variety of ways to create patterns that would be revealed after dying. Raffia and starch were the two most common forms of resist used in the production of adire.

Raffia Resist

When raffia is tied around the cloth to act as a resist the cloths are known as adire oniko.  A great variety of patterns can be produced using this method.  For example, small circles can be created by tying small stones or seeds into the cloth and larger circles can be made by lifting a point of fabric and then binding the fabric beneath it tightly or folding the cloth from corner to corner like a concertina and then binding it very tightly at various points.

Stitch resist

The term adire alabare is used when sewing has been used as a means to resist the dye. If the sewing has been done with raffia then it would be a form of adire oniko. Both machine sewing and hand sewing could be used to produce patterns. Although adire cloths were usually made by women the cloths that used a sewing machine were made by men.

When the two pieces of dyed cloth were stitched together is created a diamond shaped pattern with alternating blue and white stripes. The broadness of the stripes can be varied by the intervals at which it is bound.

Starch resist

In the early decades of the twentieth century, new techniques of resist dyeing were developed, like hand-painting designs on the cloth with a cassava starch paste made from cassava flour  prior to dyeing. This was known as adire eleko and is a similar process as “batik”.

Source: Victoria and Albert Museum on Adire


Nowadays, synthetic dyes are more affordable, cheap and less hassle than the traditional indigo and kola nut dyes so you would be more likely to find lively colours. The pictures below are the only ones I found of the process nowadays.

Women making traditional tie-dyed Gara cloth, Makeni, Sierra Leone.

A group of Makeni women making Gara traditional tie-dyed clothing, Makeni, Sierra Leone. Stock Photo

Image result for gara tie dye

Image result for gara tie dye

Adire and Gara examples

Here are a few examples of the beautiful textitles you can find on the markets in West Africa. 


For more information, do not hesitate to have a look at the documentaries below :


Do not hesitate to read Kathryn Elvira Catalano-Knaack’s Thesis in Art History on “The Traditions and History of Indigo Dyed Textiles in Sierra Leone” 2011. I got most of my information for this article from her thesis and I am extremelly grateful for her fieldwork and reserach. There is so little information available on Gara !

To have a read, click here for the PDF version.

The Victoria and Albert Museum on Adire cloth

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Thato Kumalo says:

    Good afternoon.
    Where can I find tye and dye material from various counties, even if it can be dresses, most preferably, they should be from Ghana, Senegal.


  2. Mamy Cisse says:

    amazing article I love african fabric and as a senegalese Im proud to wear it and promote it in the little ones at tossoko clothing


  3. Mamy Cisse says:

    Hi there,

    Very interesting article
    I love African fabrics and mostly authentic ones like tie dye fabrics -not only the african print or ankara. I have in Canada an online store of kids wear made of African Fabrics(tie dye, hand woven and mud cloth from all over Africa) to inspire the new generation and make them wear proudly african .. Note that in Mauritania they have a dyed piece of cloth made of mousseline cotton used as wrap by women -very beautiful and convenient to wear during hot season.
    Bravo, praises !


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.