I am an accidental aficionado of African textiles. Although I have always loved and collected textiles, until recently I had never looked closely at their history, production methods, or symbology. Sometimes, when you are far from home, you feel compelled to hang on to home, in some way, shape or form. When we moved to the UK about two years ago, I wanted ways of incorporating African textiles into my living space. The short version of the story is that – because I could not find it – I built it. And started a company called Toghal.
The happy part of the story is that it started me on a path to finding out more about Adire textiles from Nigeria and Mbuti barkcloth from the Congo. And it is that same happy path that has led me to investigate cloths from the South-East of Nigeria. The reason I bring up this background is that, having looked at textiles from different parts of Africa, it helps me both to find both differences and similarities between the different styles of cloth I research. I must emphasise though that, as an accidental aficionado, I am essentially an amateur.
Are textiles texts? Sometimes it seems that textiles tell their own stories, hold a narrative of a people, and transmit culture across time. Yet, of course, textiles cannot be read like texts, though the words share the same Latin root “texere” which means “that which is woven”. Another lover of West African textiles, Colleen Kriger [Kriger, 2006], sees it differently. For her, what textiles and texts have in common are ‘orality and narrative,’ rather than ‘writing or literacy’. All the processes that go into weaving textiles are ancient. Spinning. Continuous threads. These emphasise sequence, and narrative.
The oral narrative I’d like to explore today is that of textiles from the town of Akwete, in the South East of Nigeria. Let us clarify where Akwete is.
There are various things that are interesting about the Akwete oral narrative. Firstly, let’s look at how it is produced. It is woven on an upright rectangular loom, with a continuous warp. In the photograph, the loom leans slightly away from the weaver, and the basic background of the cloth (the warp) is wound onto permanently fixed beams [Lamb and Holmes, 1981]. There is a tradition that Akwete looms are special, and should not be moved away from the town, or used by anyone who isn’t from Akwete.
Narrative of the loom
The Akwete loom produces a wide cloth, up to 120cm; this means that it can be worn as a single width wrapper, instead of being sewn together to make up a larger cloth. The way it is woven typically stretches the spacing between the warp threads so that the width of the cloth at the end is wider than at the beginning.
Some might say this is no accident. For a wearer of wrappers, the extra bit of cloth provided by this technique is a clever bonus – it allows the knot to hold it in place to be made more easily, and tighter.
Weaving is a wide-spread skill among Akwete women, and in the 1980s, some researchers [Lamb and Holmes, 1981] noted that practically all women knew how to weave, and that it seemed that weaving was so much in the blood that women who worked away from home might return home for a quick turn at the loom. The weaving method incorporates a way of adding thread into the warp to form a pattern. This is done using an nkpo, a brass weaving tool used as both a bobbin to wrap thread around and as a sword to insert an inlay thread. These are passed down from generation to generation, and a daughter may carry her mother’s weaving sword at her funeral.
Narrative of the motif
There are various geometric patterns used in Akwete cloth, sometimes developed by a weaver or household whose name will remain attached to the design. For example Dakuru, a zigzag pattern named after Dakaru Rose Ordor, a weaver active in the 1970s [Aronson, 2001]. What we have to remember is not that the pattern itself is new, but that its incorporation into an Akwete cloth usually means the adoption of a new technique in order to effectively integrate the design.
Each weaver knows a repertoire of motifs which she can arrange in endless ways to produce a cloth of her own invention. Some styles were reserved for use by members of the royal family, for example [Davies, 1980]. Other motifs were given names based on events that prompted their invention. An example is the Nnadede cloth, said to be named after a famous soldier who was given a cloth in that pattern on his return from war.
From diagram in Davies, 2001.
The Ikaki motif represents the tortoise, which is regarded as wise and cunning. The tortoise’s clever trick of being able to retract its head and limbs into a protective shell is the basis for this awe: You get into trouble. You hide.
From diagram in Davies, 2001.
The motif of trade
Another interesting part of the Akwete tradition is that the weavers make the cloth primarily to sell to outsiders. The main patrons of the weavers are from nearby Rivers state. One possible explanation of this is that they are members of a group of people who migrated from elsewhere and settled in the Delta. One splinter group, the Ndoki, settled in Akwete and assimilated the Igbo language while maintaining trade links with the Ibani people who they migrated with [Aronson, 1980]. The oral histories of both the Ndoki and Ibani peoples seems to confirm this. Marriages between the two communities were encouraged in order to cement these historic ties.
Another explanation lies in the traditional trade routes started during the palm oil trade. Akwete was near a river and this meant it could be a place where goods passed through, an entrepot.
Whatever the reason, Akwete cloth is deeply integrated into the cultural lives of the Ibani people. The cloth is often used for weddings and funerals.
The need to make their cloths appeal to outside tastes meant that the weavers were willing to borrow and appropriate as necessary.
Sometimes, weavers were asked to simply copy an existing or old design that a customer liked. Again, they exercised their ingenuity, using motifs and styles from elsewhere and making them their own. The cloths were sold widely throughout Nigeria. For example, Yoruba cloth is woven in strips that are then sewn together to make a wider cloth. In many Akwete cloth designs, the principle of the strip cloth is maintained even though a single width fabric is created.
The oral history mentions that the earliest weavers unravelled imported cloth in order to get yarn to weave into new cloths of their own design. The weavers continue to use a wide variety of imported yarns of different colours to cater to their markets.
Finally, a bit of myth
How did Akwete start producing this cloth? Here we have another oral narrative. Once upon a time there lived a woman called Madam Dada Nwakata. She devised a way of using silk and cotton to weave cloths but did not want to share her new skills widely. No one taught her how to weave, she figured it out herself [Aronson, 2001]. She apparently came up with new design inspirations in her sleep, saying her ancestors taught her what to do. She practiced secretly, and no one was allowed to see her loom. Keeping lots of secrets all to yourself is exhausting. Everyone needs a friend, but because Dada Nwakata wanted to keep her secret, she chose a confidante who was deaf, thinking that this meant her friend would not be able to teach others what she saw. But this friend, Ngbokwo, did learn by carefully watching, and after Dada Nwakata’s death, she taught others and spread the skills.
What I love about African textiles such as Akwete is that whenever you try to pin them down as ‘traditional,’ you find that they are, yet they aren’t. Textiles show the essence of humankind, in that we continually borrow from others and weave into our own narratives, and equally lend parts of our own culture to other people that they will incorporate and use as they will into their own cultures. Tradition implies that something relies on ‘past precedent’ and is ‘essentially unchanging’ [Picton, 1995]. Instead, what we find is that Akwete cloth embodies the very dynamism of culture, that of borrowing and lending, the ability to create oral narratives, and the constant innovation that enables us to weave in the new.
This post was adapted from a talk given at the Igbo Conference at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in May 2014.
Aronson L. Patronage and Akwete Weaving. African Arts XIII: 3 1980.
Davies M. Akwete Cloth and its Motifs. African Arts XIII: 3 1980.
Lamb V & Holmes J. Nigerian Weaving. 2001.
Torntore S. Cloth is the Center of the World. 2001.