When a lot of us see tie-dye we think of hippies and 60’s culture, but did you know that it has long been a practice in Africa? From Ghana to the Gambia, tie-dyeing is one of the many ways that African artisans like to express their style and diversity. Long before the 70’s, tie-dye was known as Shibori, a Japanese term that encompasses a wide variety of resist-dyeing techniques, which have been utilized by different cultures for over 6000 years. The end results are random patterns that are either geometric or loose and free-flowing and/or combinations of everything in between.
For centuries African artists have used the tie-dye technique to produce vivid fabrics for garments and home decor. Beginning with a base fabric, intricate patterns are deftly created by winding or tying string or small strips of grass to form a resist. Many of the symbols you’ll see in African tie-dye come from the various cultures in Africa. Tie-dye from West Africa often features Ashanti, Akan or Adinkra symbols. Many plants and animals signify different things in the Ashanti 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.
There are several techniques used for tie-dyeing in Africa. One method is to have a cloth tied or stitched tightly so that the dye can’t penetrate the fabric. Then a starchy substance is applied to the fabric. This will resist the dye giving the fabric pale areas on a dark background when it’s washed at the end of the dyeing process. This is more often used for two-tone tie-dye.
Another method of tie-dyeing of 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. Tie-dyeing takes a lot of time, effort, and skill, and artisans in Africa love the ability it gives them to be creative and express the symbols of their culture.