Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Byfield, Judith. “Technology and Change: The Incorporation of Synthetic Dye Techniques in Abeokuta, Southwestern Nigeria.” Contact, Crossover, Continuity: Proceedings of the Fourth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 22–24, 1994 (Los Angeles, CA: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1995), pp. 45–51.


Copyright © 1994 Judith Byfield


In the oriki (appellations) of an 18th-century oba (king) in Okuku, references to cloth and indigo were included in the verses that attested to the oba's wealth and greatness,

Abioye, my father, Olugbola, one who takes the image and all its children to dance

The beauty of cloth dyed in indigo does not fade

Adewale, the indigo is what gives the cloth its worth

The references suggestively point to the aesthetic as well as commercial value of indigo in Yoruba society. Scholars and travelers have long noted the importance of indigo dyed cloth in Yoruba society, and Yoruba women, the principal dyers in Yoruba society, are considered among the premier indigo dyers in West Africa. They are particularly renowned for their indigo resist dyed cloth, adire.

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers have described in detail the process women used to derive what Robert Campbell called the "beautiful blue" from the indigo plant indigenous to western Nigeria. Yet, Claire Polakoff noted in her 1981 volume, African Textiles and Dyeing Techniques, "Regrettably, today . . . synthetic indigo has largely replaced the natural." While some dyers continue to use natural indigo, Polakoff's assessment is nevertheless accurate. Since the 1930s, Yoruba dyers began incorporating synthetic dyes, and most dyeing today in the major dyeing centers of Abeokuta, Lagos, and Ibadan is done with synthetic dyes.

Few authors have sought to explore why this change occurred even though it reflected a significant development within the dyeing industry. Dyers had to learn and perfect a new line of ingredients with different qualities. In Abeokuta, the Yoruba town on which this paper focuses, the shift to synthetic dyes occurred rather quickly, within a ten-year period between the 1920s and 1930s. This paper highlights one of the factors that contributed to this shift away from natural to synthetic indigo, specifically the shortage of natural indigo.