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African Tie-Dye Origin and Evolution


Tie dyeing is one of the many ways that African artisans like to express their style and diversity. In Africa, most designs and motifs used to decorate fabrics come from various cultures. Many designs are associated with particular plants, animals, events or proverbs.

West Africa for instance, often feature Akan or Adinkra symbols. Many plants and animals signify different things in the Akan culture; for example, an alligator symbolizes adaptability, a heart signifies patience and tolerance, and the famous Gye Nyame symbol, symbolizes God’s omnipotence and power.


How Is African Tie-Dye Made?

This basic hand process involves binding or tying a raised portion of whole cloth with thread, string, twine, raffia, rubber bands, rope, or other linear materials to “reserve” or protect areas from receiving dye penetration during a vat-immersion or dip-dye process. For centuries African artists have used the tie-dye technique to produce vivid fabrics for garments and home decor.


There are several techniques used for tie-dyeing in Africa. Knot dyeing is the simplest form of physical resist which involves tying the rectangle of cloth on itself in knots in the corners and center before dyeing to produce bold, turbulent patterns. Then a starchy substance is applied to the fabric.This resist the dye giving the fabric pale areas on a dark background when it’s washed at the end of the dyeing process.

For dip dyeing, wet cloth is dipped into a series of dye baths containing increasingly darker values of the same or related color or along the edges of a folded bundle of cloth.


Another method of tie dyeing is folding a strip of cloth into several narrow pleats and binding them together.The folds and the binding resist the dye to produce a linear and cross-hatched effect.

It is believed that tie-dyeing developed in conjunction with indigo cultivation and has been widely practiced by peoples throughout the world for centuries to decorate their clothing,including India, Indonesia, Japan, Central Asia, Europe, Mesoamerica, and South America, notably in pre-Columbian Peru.


West Africa Indigo Dyeing

There are vast variety of vat recipes (where the indigo is fermented and dyed in the same large container). These ancient methods have been passed on through generations and they are indigenous to nationalities and even closer related to tribal regions of West Africa.


African Tie-dyeing takes a lot of time, effort, and skill, and artisans in Africa love the opportunity it gives them to be creative and express the symbols of their culture. Aside from the variations in dye compositions, there are a wide variety of decorative dyeing techniques to be found in Africa.


When it comes to the origin and evolution of traditional tie-dye methods, it is based on the almost universal observation that areas of any foundation material protected from exposure to liquids, gases, heat, sun, or other substances, are left untouched in their original color or state.


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