500 Years of Tie and Dye Production

The Centenary Project

A Close-up on the Kano Dye Pits in Northern Nigeria

A Historical City
Kano is a sprawling city in the North-West of Nigeria with a population of just over 10 million. Among its attractions are the 500-year old dyeing pits of Kofar Mata where the local natives have been dyeing cloths for a living.

An Ancient Civilisation

Northern Nigeria is known for its rich and diverse cultural heritage that may have preceded current civilisation with archaeological discoveries establishing the existence of prehistoric civilization of the Nok people.

Its kingdoms developed in the context of the trans-Saharan trade and established trade contacts along the existing trade routes at the time. Slaves, kola nuts, leather, cloth, salt, animal hides, gold and henna were exported to neighbouring Timbuktu down to Tripoli.

Welcome to Kofar Mata

Textile production started as early as the 9th century and was well known for the rich variety of designs, colours, materials and production techniques.

Production techniques included weaving followed by tie and dye: the fabrics were formed by the weaving process using raffia, silk and cotton and then dyed in blue indigo.

Dyeing was carried out in Zaria as well as in Kano. Today, only the famous Kofar Mata dyeing pits of Kano has survived and has now become a tourist site.

In the Heart of Kano

Although Heidi Nast claims the Royal Kano Court women had exclusive rights to indigo textile dying, the Kano dye pits in Kofar Mata were established in 1498 close to the City’s central mosque and Ganuwa (historical Kofar Mata gates).

These dye pits became a tourist centre as many were fascinated with the authenticity of the process and the maintenance of a long lasting traditional method of dyeing fabrics.

Ancient and Authentic

The Kano dye pits in Kofar Mata were established in 1498 and have become the emblem of the age-old dyeing tradition in Northern Nigeria.

Unfortunately, as patronage diminished from the dye pits, the tradition started fading away with many pit owners seeking greener pastures and very few were interested in apprenticeship.

Still, the site continues to be a tourist centre as many are fascinated with the authenticity of the process and the maintenance of a long lasting traditional method of dyeing fabrics.

The Materials
What is unique about the dyeing process in Kofar Mata is that the ingredients and equipment are locally obtained or constructed.

A pit within which the dye process takes place.

A locally constructed stirrer for the dye pits.

Potassium (Potash) used in the preparation of dye mixtures.

A dyer holding some pieces of the baba plant.

Firewood ashes used in the preparation of dye mixtures.

A pit within which the dye process takes place.

The Process
Dyeing in Kofar Mata involves dipping woven fabrics or yarns into fermented dye solutions made from indigenous dyes obtained in the region.

Weaving the Fabric

The process begins with the stage where the fabrics (woven, cotton or silk) are tied into different patterns and the solution for dyeing is prepared. The patterns are divided into regular and royal patterns.

The fabric is prepared by the weaving or patterning process using raffia, silk and cotton cloths.

The royal patterns are usually in straight lines while the regular ones are made in different circular patterns.

An example of circular-patterned regular design on cotton

Various patterns can be made on the same piece of cloth to produce a cascading design after the cloth is dyed.

This shows a royal design on silk

The design can also be made using raffia which is a woven cloth made from raffia palm leaves.

Intricate patterns like this produce interesting patterns on the fabric after dyeing.

Creating the Dye Solution

About 1550 litres of water is poured into the pit. The water is measured according to the depth of the pit (which is about 6m). Forty buckets of ashes are then added into the water and left for three days to enable the water penetrate the ashes.

Finally, the baba plant (about 200kg) is measured and added into the solution and left for another three days.

Three days later...

...the leaves and sticks in the baba plant rise to the top of the pit and are filtered out from the solution. At this point, three buckets of potash & and another component called 'Katsi' will be included.

This is left for another 3 days – adding up to 9 days in total.

Post-fermentation

After the fermentation period, the charcoal from the ash rises to the top of the solution along with other unwanted residue. This are then filtered out.

The solution is then stirred with the stirring machine (not shown here) for a period of one week.

Inactive solution

This solution usually has a one year life span during which they have to be mixed at least once. During this period, the solution can become inactive due to lack of use and, as a result, change colour to a darker solution.

Makhouba to the rescue...

When the solution becomes inactive, a brown powdery-like substance called Makhouba is applied in order to reactive it.

The makhouba is mixed in with the inactive solution so that it can more take effect more easily.

Time to Dye

The actual dyeing takes place when the fabric is continuously dipped in the solution for a period of time, depending on how deep the dyer intends the colour to be.

I. Light blue – One hour
II. Navy Blue- Two hours
III. Dark Blue- Three Hours
IV. Blue black- Six hours

For example, this royal pattern has been dipped for over three hours because the dyer is aiming for a dark blue colour.

There are over 100 dye pits at Kofar Mata and it is usual to find many dyers working on different cloths all at once.

Drying and Beating

After the dyer is satisfied with the colour he intends to achieve, he spreads the cloth out to dry and then undergo Bugu - beating the dyed fabric with big log of wood.

This practice is said to be as old as dyeing itself. Bugu is a traditional form of pressing a cloth. It is preferred because it makes the cloth shine while retaining its quality.

A royal-patterned raffia cloth after dyeing, drying and beating.

The circular-patterned regular design after dyeing

Radiant Sun

On occasions, the design is made in such a way that the circular patterns seem to glow out from the cloth like a radiant sun with dark spots in it.

This design appears to produce smaller circular patterns which are brought to life out of the radiation of the parent pattern.

A closer look at a larger circular pattern

Proud Patterns

The designers and dyers of Kafar Mata are always proud to display the products of their indigenous dyeing process – a potpourri of patterns made up of different shades of blue indigo, using a modest variety of fabrics and textiles.

A Unique People and Process

Several observers have likened the Hausa blue indigo to the Adire of the Yoruba, the Tagelmust of the Tuareg, or the Japanese Shibori.

But the dyers at the Kofar Mata pit explain that even though the processes may look similar, the materials are different as they employ only natural ingredients and local methods of dyeing.

The Centenary Project
Credits: Story

Curator: Patrick Enaholo
Researcher: Kehinde Katibi
Photographs: Kehinde Katibi
Text: Kehinde Katibi/Patrick Enaholo

© The Centenary Project

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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