Nigerian Men’s Weaving

YORUBA – In the C19th the the rulers of the Yoruba kingdoms of south western Nigeria maintained elaborate palaces that were the major patrons for artists working in a huge range of media including wood sculptors, leather workers, calabash carvers, drummers, bead artists, iron workers and brass casters, as well as weavers, tailors and embroiderers. The imperial Yoruba state of Oyo was the most powerful of these kingdoms, while the ancient city of Ife remained an important cultural and religious centre. Cloth was central to the social, religious, political, economic, and cultural life of these complex and sophisticated African communities. In a book published in 1823 one Captain Adams, who made several voyages to the region between 1786 and 1800 wrote that “the cloth manufactured in Hio [i.e. Oyo] is superior, both for variety of pattern, colour, and dimensions, to any made in the neighbouring states.” The Yoruba speaking region of Nigeria is one where two forms of weaving technology overlap and both the upright single-heddle loom used by women and the narrow-strip double-heddle loom mostly used by men are found. In the late twentieth century Yoruba women’s weaving has declined drastically. In contrast Yoruba aso oke weaving on the narrow-strip loom is without doubt one of the most vibrant and successful textile traditions in Africa today.

A late C19th image of an aso oke weaver, one of the earliest known photos of aso oke production. Photographer unknown, courtesy Foreign & Commonwealth Office Archive, London.

In the early years of the C20th the tradition of aso oke weaving centred around three prestige cloths: etu; sanyan; and alaari; although in reality a far wider range of designs were woven in the past. These three cloths are still associated with a deep sense of respect for tradition and a consciousness of identity as Yoruba, although they have long since been supplanted by more recent fashions. Etu is a deep blue, almost black, indigo dyed cloth, so dark that a costly dyeing process involving many many immersions in fresh pots of indigo was needed, offset by very thin warp and weft stripes, often only a single thread in width, of lighter blue. The name etu means guinea fowl, and the cloth is likened to the bird’s speckled plumage. A verse from an Ifa divination text describes etu as the father of all cloths. Sanyan is woven from the beige silk obtained locally from the cocoons of the Anaphe moth, forming a rather uneven pale brown cloth. Alaari is the Yoruba name for cloth woven using magenta waste silk that until the early decades of this century was imported across the Sahara from southern Europe via Tripoli. Cloths woven entirely with this silk were extremely rare and it was more usual to weave it as stripes or weft float decorations into an indigo dyed cloth.

C19th aso oke shawl cloth with magenta silk alaari decoration.

By the middle of the twentieth century aso oke was worn by the Yoruba only at major life-cycle events such as naming ceremonies for babies, engagements, weddings, important birthdays, chieftaincy title ceremonies, and funerals, as well as the major festivals and Christian or Islamic holy days. One of the reasons aso oke has not received as much recognition abroad as other African styles such as kente is the sheer variety of colours and styles explored by Yoruba weavers. Nevertheless a quite limited set of techniques underlie the huge of patterns, specifically: ikat, the resist dyeing of sections of the warp thread, which was popular until the 1960s; supplementary weft float or brocade patterning, with designs of triangles, combs, Koran boards, checks, and more rarely writing or figurative designs floating on the top face of the cloth; and openwork. The most distinctive feature of much aso oke is a form of openwork in which holes are created by using extra weft threads to tie together groups of warps, with the extra wefts themselves forming a pattern on the cloth surface. The basic designs in a majority of cloths however are formed by patterns of warp and weft stripes, and it was these which provided the basis for an elaborate repertoire of pattern names. Since the 1970s the custom of naming patterns has declined in importance.

Cloth from the 1950s, probably woven for a chieftaincy ceremony.

Today aso oke is more popular than ever among the growing numbers of Yoruba in Nigeria and is also widely used by other Nigerians and in nearby countries such as Ghana and Togo. Since the 1990s increasing numbers of women have taken up aso oke weaving.

HAUSA, NUPE, TIV, JUKUN – The state of knowledge at present about the weaving traditions of northern and central Nigeria is patchy at best. Two superb PhD theses have been written on aspects of Hausa weaving: by Shea (1975) on the trade in fine indigo dyed turkudi fabrics, and by Heathcote (1979) on Hausa embroidered dress. The book Nigerian Weaving (1980) is a useful introduction with superb photographs and a useful but often criticised text. The social organisation of Nupe men’s weaving is covered by Nadel (1942) and Perani (1977) but little is known about the range of cloths produced. The Tiv, Jukun, and other groups, despite producing remarkable textiles, have hardly been researched at all. Hausa weaving on the double heddle loom is notable in particular for the diversity of cloth types produced. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries weavers in the villages around Kano produced huge quantities of lightweight turkudi cotton cloth in strip widths of 1/2 inch or less, which was dyed and glazed with indigo in Kano itself by specialist craftsmen, then exported throughout the Sahel and Sahara. It was (and still is, though output has much declined) particularly highly prized by the Tuareg for use as veils. The three prestige cloths mentioned on the previous page, here called saki (“guinea fowl” – dark indigo check), tsamiya (local beige wild silk) and alharini (imported magenta silk) were woven in strips about four inches in width for use in prestige robes, apparently mostly by weavers of Nupe origin. Cotton blankets are woven in weft faced strips of 8-10 inch width, while other weavers produce lightweight cotton cloths with supplementary weft float decoration for use as women’s wrappers in strip with a width of up to 18 inches. All these types of weaving are still found, although mostly only on a very small scale. Nupe men’s weaving is best known for the prestige fabrics they produced for the making of robes. Nupe embroiderers were considered to be the most highly skilled in Nigeria. According to Nadel there were three guilds of male weavers active in the Nupe capital of Bida in the first half of the C20th, all of which could be traced back to origins among the Yoruba. Although there may be a very few Nupe men still weaving in rural villages the tradition is almost if not entirely extinct in Bida itself.

One of the last two weavers still active in the Jukun capital Wukari. 2002

Jukun weaving seems to be on the verge of totally disappearing, at least on the scanty evidence provided by our brief visit to the area in 2002. Only two weavers remained active in the capital town of Wukari, and a nearby village known for its weaving was destroyed during the outbreak of inter-ethnic unrest in 2001. This is particularly unfortunate since Jukun cloths woven in the early C20th are some of the most complex and interesting in the whole of the West African strip weaving tradition, incorporating figurative supplementary warp float patterning. Virtually nothing is known about the production and use of these kyadze cloths, although some fine examples owned by the Jukun ruler were published by Venice Lamb (1980). Wukari also seems to have been the origin of large handspun strip woven cotton fabrics that were resist dyed using a stitched indigo technique. Many of these were exported to Cameroon, were they stimulated the local production of similar cloths known as ndop.

A young Tiv weaver.2002, photo by Duncan Clarke

In contrast to the situation among the Nupe and Jukun, at least some types of weaving still seem to be flourishing among the Tiv. Imported cotton thread is woven in strips about 7 inches wide, usually decorated with warp strips in colours such as black, white, grey, brown, and purple. This cloth is widely used in the region on ceremonial occasions. A second type of cloth is created by indigo resist dyeing techniques on white hand spun cotton strips of about 4 inch width. Tiv men also used to weave wider panels of openwork cloth, which was also subjected to resist dyeing with indigo. These wider pieces were woven using a form of single heddle ground loom.

Further Reading:
Bray, J.M. “The Economics of Traditional Cloth Production in Iseyin, Nigeria” Economic Development and Cultural Change 17 (4) (1969)
Bray, J.M. “The Organisation of Traditional Weaving in Iseyin, Nigeria” Africa 38 (3) (1968)
Clarke,D. Aso Oke: Hand-Woven Textile Design Among the Yoruba of South-western Nigeria (PhD thesis, University of London (1998)
Eicher, J. Nigerian Handcrafted Textiles (1976)
Heathcote, D. The Embroidery of Hausa Dress (Unpublished PhD thesis, ABU Zaria) More accessible are his numerous published articles –
Heathcote,D. “Hausa Embroidered Dress” African Arts V(2) see bibliography in The Art of African Textiles, J.Picton ed. (1095) for full list.
Kriger,C. “Textile Production and Gender in the Sokoto Caliphate” Journal of African History 34 (1993)
Lamb, V. & Holmes, J. Nigerian Weaving (1980)
O’Hear, A. “The Introduction of Weft Float Motifs to Strip Weaving in Ilorin” in West African Economic and Social History: Studies in memory of Marion Johnson, ed. Henige,D. & McCaskie,T.C. (1990)
Perani,J. Nupe Crafts: the Dynamics of Change in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Weaving and Brass Working (PhD thesis, University of Indiana) (1977)
Perani,J. “The Cloth Connection: Patrons and Producers of Hausa and Nupe Prestige Strip-Weave”in History, Design, and Craft in West African Strip-Woven Cloth (1992)
Perani,J. & Wolff,N. Cloth, Dress and Art Patronage in Africa (1999)
Poyner, R. 1980. “Traditional Textiles in Owo, Nigeria” in African Arts 14
Renne,E. “The Decline of Women’s Weaving among the North-East Yoruba” Textile History 23 (1992)
Shea,P. The Development of an Export Oriented Dyed Cloth Industry in Kano Emirate in the Nineteenth Century (PhD thesis, University of Wisconsin) (1975)

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