A close-up on Aso-Oke of the Yoruba

The Centenary Project

More than just a fabric, Aso-Oke is one of the cultural vehicles through which tangible aspects of Yoruba clothing tradition can be experienced

YORUBA: THE HOME OF ASO-OKE
Aso-Oke is the prestigious hand-woven cloth of the Yoruba, a major ethnic group in the southwest of Nigeria. Over the years, it has successfully held its own as the special occasion fabric of the Yoruba.

THE CITY OF IBADAN

It is said that cloth weaving was introduced into Yorubaland in the 15th century. From there, it spread to many Yoruba towns and cities like Iseyin, Oyo and Ibadan (captured here).

IT ALL BEGINS WITH PLANTING

Cotton as a major cash crop is of considerable social and economic importance to Nigeria. Its production in Nigeria dates back to 1903 with the British Cotton Growers Association taking the lead until 1974, when it was disbanded and replaced by the Cotton Marketing Board to develop, gin and market the produce.

Among the Yoruba (major ethnic group in the southwest of Nigeria), cotton is hand-processed to make thread which, along with other kinds of fabrics, is used to make Aso-Oke.

HARVESTING

The traditional cotton growing areas are concentrated in Northern and South Western Nigeria and in the Savannah belt of the country.

Most of the operations involved in cotton production are still being done manually. It requires constant labour at harvest and during production planting, weeding, thinning.

Local harvesting is often done by women and children.

WEAVING

For the Yoruba people, cotton is an important raw material. The Yoruba are renowned cloth weavers, a craft that they practice to meet their fashion taste and a variety of needs.

In the past, Yoruba women saw it as their prerogative to clothe their household. Hence they engaged in the production of woven cloth such as Aso-Oke in order to meet their domestic needs.

It afforded them the opportunity to do other domestic work and offered them the chance to teach their female children how to weave cloth.

Today, the production and sale of Aso-Oke also provides locals with some form of livelihood. In Yorubaland, those who deal in Aso-Oke are usually referred to as Alaso-oke.

A TIMELESS GARMENT

Today, Aso-Oke has become part of the Yoruba culture, an art extraordinaire and, like vintage paintings and wine, a collector’s delight.

Aso-Oke is a timeless woven cloth form with which the Yoruba negotiate and explicate their socio-economic space. It epitomizes their pomp and pageantry in dress and serves as an identity marker.

PRODUCTION OF ASO-OKE
Aso-Oke (which means 'cloth from the hinterland') is the genre of woven cloth that is peculiar to the Yoruba. It is made from cotton and handwoven.

COTTON SEED EXTRACTION

Seed extraction is indigenously done by hand. The cotton seeds are placed on a block of wood and an iron rod is rolled over the seeds.

The pressure exerted on the seeds by the iron rod pushes the seeds out of the cotton fibres.

After the seeds are extracted, the cotton is set aside, while the seeds are ready to be planted again.

SPINNING

The weaver uses locally made wood (made specifically for spinning) popularly known as a spindler, but locally as "orun" to separate cotton from the wool.

The weaver spreads the wool and rolls it on the piece of wood. The spindler would be turned, and while it is being turned, it will start rotating thereby thinning the cotton. The process of spinning rolls the cotton on the spindler.

PULLING OUT THE THREADS

Cotton behaves like magnates, thus, easily attracts dirt. In order for it to be fit for use, the dirt has to be separated from the wool. This process is called sorting.

After further processing, we have thread. The thread is either dyed to a desired color or used in its natural form, which is creamish white.

The desired colors are interlaced on the weaving machine to create a structure and order with which the design will be brought to life.

The design to be made determines the parts of the machine to be assembled.

PATTERNING

Patterning involves setting the threads on the machine, which in itself takes between 2 to 4 hours. The process requires a lot of care and patience because if a mistake is made, the weaver would have to unweave the design.

WEAVING BEGINS

Only when the assembling of the required machine parts, and arrangement of the thread is concluded does the weaver proceed to weaving.

The duration of weaving differs greatly on the complexity of the design, expertise of the weaver, and conditions with which she has to work.

THE WEAVING MACHINE: PRIDE OF GENERATIONS

Traditionally, machines are passed down from generation to generation. It was customary among the Yoruba's that every family should be involved in some form of craftsmanship asides farming.

The fabric is traditionally woven by men on a horizontal loom in narrow strips or by women on a vertical loom. The narrow strips, 10-20 cm wide, are sewn together to make the entire cloth.

ABOUT THE WEAVING PROCESS

Weaving is a process of interlacing a set of threads at right angles to form a fabric. For this piece, bright yellow, white, and navy blue are the desired colors used to create the design.

Patterns are pre-determined using a calculative process before the actual weaving wherein the weaver knows what the final creation is going to look like. Hence, the weaver must pick out all the colors of the thread and decide the structure of the weaving pattern before beginning.

The product of the weaving process is an intricate design of various colours and patterns that has come to be associated with Aso-Oke.

ASO-OKE IN TRADITIONAL AND MODERN FASHION
Aso-Oke is still very much in use. Today, it is being adopted by modern fashion in various forms and for various occasions. 

ASO-OKE: A FASHION STATEMENT

Aso-Oke exudes fashion statements that are timeless yet native in content. Yoruba fashion and garment culture – which is awash with styles such as four-piece female of iro (wrapper), buba (blouse) and ipele (shawl) with the gele accessory (headgear) as well as the male agbada (robe), buba and, dansiki (baggy shirts), sokoto (trouser) and fila (cap accessory) – has been synonymous with Aso-Oke since the past century. And despite modern and contemporary fashion raves, Aso-Oke has remained resilient.

The Centenary Project
Credits: Story

Curator: Patrick Enaholo/David Assam
Photography: Christopher Udoh/David Assam
Research: Patrick Enaholo/David Assam/Kehinde Kehinde

Sources:
Ogunsheye Foundation
Ethnik by Tunde Owolabi

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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