Aso Oke is a handwoven cloth that is made on a loom. It is typically reserved for special occasions such as marriages, coronations, child dedications, etc. It originated in Yorubaland around the 15th century and has steadily gained popularity on the local and international stages.
Research suggests that the weaving of Aso Oke started in Ile-Ife and then was taken to Iseyin, from where it began to spread all over the world. It was important to me to learn about this ancient craft from the source and after a 2+ hour drive from Ibadan, we had arrived in the ancient town.
Asking the locals questions is the best way to gather information and before long we were led to an open air plan shed, hidden away in the community. This location served as the base of operations for Aso Oke production, evident by the rhythmic click-clack sounds the looms make.
Aso Oke is of great economic and cultural value to the Yoruba people of Nigeria. There is a popular phrase amongst them: “Aso la nki, ki a to ki eniyan”. This means “We greet Aso (clothes) before we greet its wearer.” Aso Oke is a symbol of identity that evokes a sense of dignity and pride for the Yoruba. Beyond its sentimental value, Aso Oke is also responsible for putting food on the table across several households. From the cotton planters to the weavers to the traders, the craft provides many jobs along the chain of production. Therefore, it is an integral part of culture, woven into the very fabric of Yoruba society.
We learnt about the life cycle of the cotton plant - planted at the end of the rainy season and ready for harvest in the dryer months. The cotton is processed, dyed different colors, spun into threads and wrapped around a spindle. These threads form the foundation for the Aso Oke fabric.
There are 3 types of Aso Oke; the Sanyan variety, woven from the silk of an anaphe worm and cotton yarns - characterized by its signature carton brown color. The Alaari type, woven with either synthetically grown cotton or shiny threads, recognized by its glossy finish and finally, the Etu type, which are typically indigo colored, with tiny stripes of various colors, known for its simplicity and style.
The fabric is made into rolls by skilled weavers, many of whom picked up the trade from their parents and do nothing else. These weavers spend hours daily producing various colors of the fabric, their only aid being the wooden loom. These looms are designed to hold threads in place while the weaver interlaces that with more thread to form fabric, quite straightforward but also quite slow. Modern day looms produce these fabrics at a much quicker pace and newer methods can produce new designs and motifs. I watched these weavers skillfully pass thread back and forth and made an attempt to use the loom, soon realizing how much skill is involved in the production.
Amongst the things that make the fabric quite coveted is how elegantly it sits when made into outfits. It sits gallantly on your body frame, and you immediately feel the regality oozing from the threads. Embroidered patterns can be added to the post production to further improve the allure with fascinating results. Its no wonder how popular it has grown. The dense nature of the fabric is an issue however, and many wearers complain about the heat while wearing it, so its not the best for casual wear (at least for tropical climates).
Apart from traditional clothing, Aso Oke can be applied to many different crafts. Some people have begun to investigate the use of this medium and the results are fascinating The WAF brand and their signature bucket hats, Femi Handbags and their mixed media bags, and artist Nengi Omuku who uses the fabric as a base for her art are examples of people who see the potential.
It is evident that the development of this craft is only at its early stages and as an industry, Aso Oke begs for innovation. In terms of production quality, weaving method, technical knowhow, designs, and tools, a lot of improvements can be made. Since many of these things haven't changed for centuries, there's no doubt that the more we explore it, the more utility we get.
Making the trip to learn about the traditional fabric from its source was important to me. Apart from gaining knowledge from people who have been in the craft since birth, it was also important to promote the local industry. Information about foreign individuals producing counterfeit version of the fabric are rampant so it is important that if you are looking for original Aso Oke, you source from Iseyin weavers. The counterfeit market erodes the economic value of the fabric and plays a role in disempowering the people that produce it.
The Iseyin weavers still retain a positive outlook however, they are confident that with a little more interest from the public and private sectors, this fabric can get back on track as a Nigerian symbol of identity and I agree
They sell rolls of Aso Oke for N7,000 upwards, and supporting their hustle will be the first step in their empowerment. Let me know what you guys think in the comments, would love to hear from you!