So, how did you get into textiles?
My original interest was an academic one I did a PHD about Yoruba narrow strip weaving about 20 years ago.
Can you tell me more about Yoruba narrow strip weaving?
In Nigeria there are two main types of traditional weaving. One of which involves what’s called a narrow strip loom used by men throughout West Africa and they weave cloth in strips that vary in width from 1 – 40cm. The strips are cut and then sewn together edge to edge to make larger clothes. Aso Oke is the Yoruba version of that technique.
Have you always known you wanted to work in textiles?
No, not at all. I used to work in the city and I got bored of the routine so I decided to study my masters then a PHD at SOAS. It really was a matter of looking for an interesting topic and doing something related to the Yoruba culture; at the time textiles seemed to be an appealing subject. When I finished my studies I knew I didn’t want to become an academic. To become an academic you have to engage in a lot of things beyond your immediate interests and I just wanted to focus on textiles. I was happy wandering around West Africa looking at textiles. I don’t mind looking through archives too but I didn’t want to pursue academics and teach students.
Why Yoruba and not one of the many other Nigerian languages?
As with Igbo and Hausa there’s a lot of Yoruba participation in Nigerian culture. The Yoruba people have a large amount of universities in the area and academics outside the country where I could find information.
Can you tell me about the process behind making Adire fabric?
Adire means tie and dye in Yoruba. I think its roots lie in much older traditions of indigo dying in West Africa. A lot of people across West Africa for a thousand years or so have been doing various types of tie dye. Indigo is the basis for most of the traditional coloured textiles. You use it to create patterns on different types of cloth. In Nigeria during the early 20th century they suddenly had this availability of a lot of imported white cloth.
Where was the cloth from?
It was from Manchester. It was cloth used for shirting in European trading companies. A business model developed whereby women could get the cloth on credit from the trading companies, pattern dye it and then sell it at a profit. It was a burgeoning business in the early decades of the 20th century in places like Ibadan and Abeokuta.
It had some ups and downs as these things do due to economical issues. So the patterning started with just tying tide resists and then stitch pattern resists. They also developed starch resist from cassava starch where they would paint patterns with that.
Similar to batik but it doesn’t have to be hot.
Is quite a long process?
Certainly the hand painted process IS. As well as hand painted ones they developed stencils which are a quicker way to decorate fabric with.
Have you ever tried any of these processes?
No, the research I did was on woven textiles rather than Adire. To be honest by the time I was interested the Adire tradition had really died out. By the end of the 60s early 1970s people were more interested in the wider range of colours.
Yeah, the original colour is quite restrictive.
It is. Indigo dying is a skill that’s quite difficult. The pots have to be fermented at the right temperature and things like that. It’s a talent that was passed on by apprenticeships but nowadays people use plastic buckets and commercial dyes.
There’s a lady called Nike Davis that owns three galleries in Nigeria that still teaches people how to do the traditional techniques.
What other types of textiles do you have at Adire African Textiles?
My focus is more on old West Africa predominantly Nigerian and Ghanaian textiles I also get quite a lot from the Ivory Coast.
What type of textiles do Ivorians have?
They also have narrow strip loom weaving and a certain amount of resist dye. The Baule people are predominantly the main weavers in Ivory Coast.
Have you ever been interested in Kenyan textiles? I really like the bead work of the Masai tribe.
Not as much, it’s interesting but they don’t really have woven textile traditions like in West Africa apart from Ethiopia. Beadwork is a whole different area of expertise.
Generally, what are your favourite types of textiles?
I suppose some of the Ghanaian traditions like Asante. Spending your whole life looking textiles you develop a kind of connoisseurship for more obscure features of things you get excited about.
Have you been to Bolgatanga?
I haven’t actually. I travel a lot around Nigeria and in Ghana I have people that gather and collect fabrics they think I’ll like. As well as weaving they used to indigo dye there but not so much now.
Have you ever explored textiles outside of Africa?
I’ve taken passing interests in some other textiles but my main focus is West African.
Do you know of any fashion designers that use West African textiles? I know a few but I’m always curious to find new ones.
It’s not something I know a lot about but there’s an exhibition in Brighton Museum called Africa Fashion Cities. They’ve visited some cities in Africa and spoken to designers to showcase their work in one exhibition. There isn’t going to be any wax in the exhibition as a lot of the designers have been using more traditional textiles.
How do you feel about wax fabric?
I quite like some of the designs, I think people get too head up on questions on what’s authentic and what’s not.
People’s cultures are not fixed and so much has changed in places like Ghana and Nigeria in the last 150 years. Wax printed cloth has been part of those changes and because its origins lie somewhere else doesn’t mean it’s not African. All fabrics have their own history and meanings and this changes over time.
Lastly, what books would you recommend to lovers of textiles?
I have a list here.