Indigo

Indigo was the foundation of numerous textile traditions throughout West Africa. For centuries before the introduction of synthetic dyes the ability to transform everyday white cotton into prized deep blue cloth was a mysterious and highly valuable skill passed on by specialist dyers from generation to generation. From the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara to the grassland kingdoms of Cameroon, indigo cloth signified wealth, abundance and fertility. A century ago blue and white striped cloth was the normal attire across a vast area from Senegal to Cameroon, while numerous traditions of “shibori” type resist pattern dyeing flourished. Appropriately it was women who dyed cloth with indigo in most areas, with the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Manding of Mali (especially the Soninke /Malinke) particularly well known for their expertise. Yoruba dyers paid tribute to a patron deity, Iya Mapo to ensure the success of the complex dye process. Among the Hausa, where the export trade in prestige textiles was highly organised, male dyers working at communal dye pits were the basis of the wealth of the ancient city of Kano.