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Traditional Tie & Dye

My Magazine 2022/10
13 min
The traditional technique of fabric dyeing called tie-dye has been practised for several centuries in The Gambia. Before the introduction of chemical dye, people used natural products to extract colours used to create colourful fabrics with different patterns of uncoloured space designed by various types of material tying and dipping it into the colour mixture.

My Gambia attended a workshop organized by Adama Jatta, the founder of the association Violence Against Girls, which was carried out in Albreda with the support of the National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC). The workshop was conducted for a group of girls with the wish to empower them with new skills and knowledge. Amongst other skills, they are also learning the traditional technique of tie-dye and colour preparation. Most of the colours are made using natural products like onion, cola nut, and the bark of a mahogany tree, but they also use chemical indigo dye.


Onion dye bath

Onion is one of the most known and worldwide used vegetables. It is a must-have ingredient in the preparation of almost every dish in The Gambia. But apart from that, it can also be used as a source for fabric colour preparation.

The skin of the onion is used to dye fabric in light brown and yellowish-green colours. After collecting the onion coats, they must be washed thoroughly. To let the colour out, onion skins must be boiled for about one hour or two in a smaller amount of water, enough to cover the peels. When the water turns dark brown, it is ready to be mixed.

The onion has to be separated from the water using a sieve. After the onion liquid cools down, it has to be mixed with a small salt and vinegar. Salt allows the dye to penetrate the fabric and embeds the colours of the pigment into the fabric permanently. Vinegar allows the colour of the dye to pop out on the material.

The fabric is folded inwards to create a band. Then it is folded again into small rectangular patterns, like the accordion. The middle is tightly tied with a cotton thread to stop the dye from penetrating the whole fabric.

The liquid is divided into two equal amounts in order to create two colours. The first colour is light brown, which is the natural colour of onion skins. One end of the fabric is dipped into the dye bath till it reaches the middle thread. After 10 minutes of dipping, the colour is soaked into the fabric deep enough, and the process can be stopped. The intensity of the colour depends on many factors. The longer you will boil the onion skins and the longer you will dip fabric into a dye bath, the more intensive the colour will be.

The second colour is achieved by adding alum stone to the water. The alum stone turns dark brown fluid into a lighter version, bringing out the yellowish-green colour on the fabric. The other end of the material is dipped into the dye bath for 10 minutes or more.

When the thread is removed from this pattern, it forms a wave of horizontal rectangular patterns of brown, yellowish-green and white.


Indigo blue dye

Indigo Blue Dye is a chemical dye that gives fabric distinct blue colour, which in The Gambia is most known as the colour of traditional clothes of the Fula tribe. In the past, indigo dye was extracted from the leaves of the Indigofera tree or the true indigo. However, today the chemical compound is used chiefly for colouring.

The indigo blue powder is put in warm water with salt, alum stone and vinegar. The mixture is covered and left for 24 hours before putting in the fabric.

The fabric is folded into a pattern of choice. It is wet in warm water before dipping into the dye bath. The material first turns green and turns dark blue when it comes in contact with oxygen. After first dipping, the material has to be aired for some time and later dipped in the bath again. The cloth is then thoroughly rinsed, and the threads are removed to show the pattern.



Fara dye

Fara is the mahogany tree. The bark of the tree is used for many purposes in The Gambia. It can be a medicine or the main part of the costume for one of the most famous masquerades of the Gambia, called Kankurang. We used it to create the Fara Dye for the textile.

The bark of the mahogany produces a brown colour when used as a dye. First, bark has to be beaten to let out more pigment. The bark is put on a hard surface and hit with a stick or stone, while the orange pigment surfaces. The bark is then washed to remove sand from it. After this, it has to be boiled in water for three to four hours. The longer it simmers, the darker the colour. When it is boiled, it is removed from the fire.

While the tinted water cools down, the fabric is folded using yet another technique to give a new variation of the pattern.

When the liquid is cold, salt is added, and the fabric is dipped into the dye bath, where it stays for a few hours to ensure an intensive and darker colour. Before being let to dry, the material is rinsed and the thread removed to show the pattern.


Cola nut dye

Cola nut is an important part of The Gambia society. It holds great importance and has many uses. Cola nut is used when asking for a woman's hand in marriage, as gifts for elders when visiting, at ceremonies, etc. However, the other use of cola nut, which is not very popular outside West Africa, is for the cola nut dye. Cola nuts used for the preparation of the colouring mixture are usually not suitable for chewing; they are cheaper and lower quality but still sold at the local markets. Cola nut produces a rich orange colour.

The cola nuts are put in a mortar and pounded with a pestle. The powder from crushed cola nuts is sieved in a big bowl; then, water is added and infused for hours, making the colour turn bright orange.

A folded and tied fabric is dipped into the dye bath several times. After dipping the material, it is rinsed, and the thread is untied to reveal a bright orange cloth with white patterns.

Traditional tie-dye products and materials are still seen in the Gambian markets like Serrekunda, Brikama and Basse. The Gambians wear traditionally dyed clothes to their celebrations, like the naming and wedding ceremony. The Sarahulis and the Bambaras are the ethnic groups associated with dyeing in The Gambia.

Interested to participate in tie & dye workshop? Contact us!

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