Weaving is an ancient craft dating back to the early Stone Age when man learnt to make a rough kind of clothing from the fibres of flax plant. Weaving is described as the orderly interlacing of fibres and pressing them together to make cloth.
In Nigeria, cloth weaving is practiced in most urban areas and cities like Abeokuta, Ilorin, Iseyin, Akwete, Okene, Benin, Sokoto, Borno, Kano and Bida among others. Raffia and cotton are most-widely used in cloth-weaving in Nigeria.
Cloth is a material of great economic, cultural, political and social importance. Before the introduction of coinage currency in Nigeria, cloth was used as trade item and currency. It is worn for body beautification, decoration and for ceremonies. There are different types of cloth-making among ethnic groups of Nigeria.
a weaver at work on akwete textile
Akwete cloth refers specifically to the cloth woven in the Ukwa West Local Government Area of Abia State. It is a traditional costume worn during traditional events such as marriages, chieftaincy ceremonies, burials, etc. Akwete cloth is common amongst Nigerians mostly in the eastern part of the country as AkuruakuAkwete. Akwete clothing is named after the community where it is manufactured. Located in Ndoki clan, it is about 40 kilometers east of the oil rich city of Port Harcourt. It is strategically located equidistant between the oil rich Port Harcourt and the commercial nerve centre of Aba. These communities have become important sites visited by foreign dignitaries to experience firsthand the creative brains that produce these unique traditional woven patterns.
The mid-late nineteenth century, weaving grew from part time that occupied some women to full time occupation in which all Akwete women participated. At this period, Akwete weavers responded to the patronage of the neighbouring Ijaw people of the Niger-Delta, devising novel techniques to create the desired patterns in new textile materials.
According to some legendary stories, majority of the ancestors of the highly gifted community came from the Island of Bonny in Rivers State. These ancestors eventually settled in the mainland. While the men fished, the women designed and wove the intricate patterns now typical of Akwete. The enchanting designs created by these weavers have arguably been adjudged, one of the most famous of the women vertical loom cloths in Nigeria.
a weaver f the akwete textile at work
According to oral tradition, the cloth’s origin is based on a legendary woman named Dada Nwakata, who was the first to weave the cloth. She was said to have been weaving in secret with spun cotton or raffia, and claimed to have got the inspiration in her dream. She kept a dumb female friend who was her only companion was she wove. The story has it that Dada Nwakata cast a spell on her loom against anyone who dared copy her. But her dumb friend was said to have learnt the art and after passed it on to generations.
Though the origin of this unique traditional industry is still shrouded in mystery, history however reveal that the production of the cloth is the traditional profession of the women folk who started weaving from the time their horizontal reach could handle a narrow wall loom. At such young age, they weaved simple designs and their fabric is usually 15 to 30 inches wide. A typical woman’s weaving is put at 40-50 inches wide.
Akwete weaving gained prominence during the boom period of the palm oil and kernel trade in what is now present day Abia State. During that period, cross trading with people of diverse cultural backgrounds in the palm oil and kernel trade exposed the beauty and creative geniuses that typify the Akwete clothing to the traders and the rest of the region. This incident was the turning point for the once subsistent business making it an instant attraction and providing commercial success through trade with people from other cultures.
While women wove the cloth proper, the men only provided the materials for the craft, for example the loom, the beater, shuttle, spreader, etc.
Akwete cloth comes in different colours and designs. Some are in red and black designs, interwoven in geometric patterns on white ground which is favoured by Igbo men. It is mainly used as a towel for bathing. The Akwete cloths, woven from sisal-hemp fibres are of coarse type, used by masquerades, and by warriors as headgears, while those made from raffia fibres are used on religious occasions like the Ozo titleship, and for mourning by women.
Most popular Akwete cloth is the type of cotton fabric woven from cotton fibres in colourful patterns; the weavers have much preference for bright and strong colours like red and yellow. Traditionally, the raw cotton fibres that surround and protect cotton seeds undergo some processes before use: First, there is the ginning, by which the cotton seeds are removed from the fibres by rolling a rod over the cotton ball. This is followed by bowing, which involves making cotton fibres fluffy by flicking the string of a small bow against them until they look like cotton wool.
Processing of the cotton fibres from the cotton seeds is not the same with that of the raffia fibres. Raffia, is the fibre from the fresh leaf of the palm tree. The process of extracting fibre from the thorny raffia palm frond demands a special skill by the woman weaver. She starts from the tip, the distal end by splitting it, and then gently pulled down to the inflorescence.
The materials used in the production of Akwete cloth are as follow: Loom, heddle,beater/sword, yarn/ twine /brass spatula, rope, shuttle, wax.
The main instrument for weaving is the vertical loom with three horizontal beams. The weaving loom is a vertically mounted single heddle loom. It is a simple rectangular, wooden frame, either freestanding, or leaning against a convenient wall. Other equipment used in the production includes:
Ekike stay board or spreader.
Paapaa – supplementary heddle.
Mkpo brass tool.
the making of akwete on the loom
Women usually tie the cloth as a wrap-around skirt (wrapper) with a blouse of lightweight machine-made fabric. The cloth is usually woven in pairs and the Igbo women wear the two wrappers for public occasions, the first one tied to reach the ankle and the second to mid-calf length.
The men on the other hand, use the fabric to sew traditional shirts popularly known as jumper,wokor, or etibo. These they wear over trousers for special occasions. The cloth may also be woven in smaller versions that could be used as curtains, cushion, table, lectern, or bed covers.
The warp threads are wrapped in a continuous loop around the top and bottom beams. A single heddle of string looped around alternate warps is lashed to a heddle stick, allowing the weaver to create a shed (space for the weft) by manipulating the heddle and one or more shed sticks.
The warped thread can be passed over more than one warped thread at a time to produce variations of thread colors and patterns in the woven cloth. As the weaving progresses, the finished cloth is slipped down over the lower beam and up and back. Then, the weaver uses a weaving stick to separate the odd and eve warp thread before she winds the weft thread onto a long narrow stick which is passed from side to side.
The modern Akwete broad loom is locally called nkwe. It is a simple rectangular frame with two horizontal posts serving as the warp and cloth beams. Traditionally a flywheel called ngarangara, is used to wind the warp (vertical) threads of the loom in two, three, or four-folds into manageable balls. The warp threads are then looped and stretched between the horizontal posts of the frame that sets the standard size of the cloth. The fly wheel is also used to wind the weft (horizontal) threads onto a long flat blade or shuttle that, during weaving, is passed through the open shed of the warp threads from one hand to the other in a slow and careful motion. Using a primary heddle rod known as ahia and other supplementary heddle rods depending on the intricacy of the patterns, the weaver commences work.
weaving of akwete cloth
The four main designs of Akwete cloth are: Etirieti: This is the plain type mostly made up of stripes and checks. This is also commonly referred to as ‘George’.
Akpukpa: This is the most colourful and commonly used by people from other cultures in the country. It incorporates the non-reversible designs.
Ahia: This pattern is controlled by the numbers of heddles attached to the warp and always in odd number of three, five, seven, nine etc.
Ogbanaonweya: This is most intricate and commonly used by families in Akwete community.
The decorative motifs appear mostly on one side of the cloth, though they can appear on both sides. The decorative motifs are given names which are suggestive of their appearance. A few among them are animal’s heart; children’s fingers; comb; earring; snake-back; stool and tortoise.
However, some weavers can give different names to motifs that are not suggestive of their appearance. In the olden days, the “tortoise” design (ikaki) is only worn by members of royal families and if anybody from a non-royal family dares wear it, he or she could be punished or be sold into slavery.
The “ebe” design is especially reserved as a protective talisman for pregnant women or warriors.
A standard-length cloth takes at least three days to produce, and more if the designs are complex and elaborate. The designs are produced by supplementary weft patterning and an over-lay technique on the right side of the cloth. The broad-sized cloth is completed as one piece with tassels at both ends of the finished cloth. This decorative effect is achieved by leaving four inch of unwoven warp threads at the end and grouping them together to create the tassel effect.
Most of these designs or motifs are by inspiration because the weavers claim that certain motifs are revealed to them by the gods, and as a result, no weaver is allowed to copy the design and it therefore dies with its owner.Although there are some uniquely traditional Akwete patterns passed down over centuries, each woman weaver still tries out new designs in keeping with modern trends in fashion thus creating an interactive and vibrant industry.
Akwete cloths are distinguished from other textiles produced on the vertical loom by their size. Akwete wrappers range from 44 to 46 inches matching pairs, which are left separate. This is compared to non- Akwete cloths which are composed of strips of cloth approximately 20 inches wide, and which are sewn together.
During the mid-1900s, weaving in Akwete shifted from being a part time occupation for some women, to a full-time occupation for the majority of women. Consequently, girls were taught how to weave Akwete cloths from a very young age.
While all cotton used in Akwete weaving was once hand spun and hand dyed by women, today, imported dyed yarns are more, as reflected in this cloth. Akwete was overtaken by cheap imported materials.
With the introduction of the lighter polyester silk threads and beautiful new patterns, Akwete cloths are now produced in diverse patterns ranging from plain stripped to profusely patterned cloths, replete with geometrical motifs such as the lozenges, domestic animals, ikaki (tortoise), and ritual objects and symbols. Modern designs also include the Nigerian coat of arms, Nigerian flag, air conditioner, etc. Akwete weavers are versatile and adaptable to modern influences, incorporating new motifs as designs.