Aso oke: The allure of an ancient fabric
Segun Adeoye visits an aso oke factory and explores the age-old technique of weaving this famous Nigerian fabric
It is unlike the typical cloth-making factory, which is equipped with machines to take the stress off the apprentice. In this aso oke fabric weaving factory, the blood is the fuel that propels the crocheting that gets the synthetic fibers woven together, to form fascinating patterns of aso oke fabric.
The setting is such that it has a semblance of being on a football pitch, with posts erected on both sides. There are sheds facing each other, made from planks and corrugated iron sheets, complemented with strewn sack materials to shield from the scorching heat of the sun.
Under each shed are four apprentice weavers facing each other in their segmented horizontal looms. Their task is as daunting as it is competitive. Before them is a “burden” made up of a block around which is wound a rope used to bind it to a carrier made of wood, to which is attached threads, which are stretched at a distance of about 12 metres to each weaver.
The simple but onerous task is to engage in the weaving process as fast as is possible, which will eventually see the “burden” pulled to the feet of the weaver, with the eventual outcome of having woven as many as 15 pieces of patterned aso oke fabrics. Each piece, which has a width of about 15 centimetres, and length of about 50 cm, is then stitched together to make traditional outfits like agbada (men’s flowing wide sleeved robe), fila (men’s traditional cap), iro (women’s wrapper), gele (women’s head gear), and Ipele or Iborun – shoulder sash or shawl.
No special prices will be awarded to whoever finishes first; but then, it is also a test of the weaver’s prowess, indeed, manliness. For a piece of aso oke fabric woven, the apprentice gets paid N100.
It is a daunting task that Egbetsiafa Philip, now in his 40s has been engaged in since 1992 when he started out to learn the art of making aso oke fabrics in the Volta Region of Ghana. “The pattern depends on what the customer wants, and there is no pattern under the sun that we cannot create, as long as it can be written down we can weave the thread to create the pattern in aso oke,” Philip says, with a characteristic Ghanaian accent.
Philip who learnt the art of making aso oke fabrics in Ghana from 1992 to 1996, moved to the Ojokoro area of Lagos, Nigeria in 1997, and has continued the age-old traditional art.
Patterned aso oke fabrics, used for various clothing outfits like the trademark fila of the former governor of Lagos State, Asiwaju Ahmed Tinubu, have become not only a fashionable trend in the society, but a status symbol, indeed, a niche for an elevated personality. It is akin to a fashion label that stands an individual out from the crowd.
In many Owambe parties, it is a common sight to see gorgeously dressed women with gele, wiggle their waists as they dance with rhythmical steps to tunes blaring from speakers. Such geles are usually stylishly tied and knotted in glamorous styles that literally announce the presence of the wearer in any of such parties. In a number of instances, they are complemented with Ipele or Iborun. Parties like wedding and engagement ceremonies in the South-western part of Nigeria are incomplete without the use of aso oke.
“What is there is that many people love aso oke, especially women, for them party is party, even naming ceremony is not complete without wearing aso oke,” Alexander Geogisberg, an aso oke weaver says.
Geogisberg, like Philip, left Ghana for Nigeria in 1997, because the allure and market for aso oke was more in Nigeria. “I also have my own shop in Ghana, but Nigerian market is more than there, so I came here,” Geogisberg says.
But as alluring as aso oke is, the process of making the fabrics is similar to the egg (used for omelet) which was laid by the mother hen – it comes with pain and stress.
“There’s the joy of seeing the aso oke when you finish, but the thing is that it comes with great stress and body ache,” Agbetsiafa Bright says, as he swallows two tablets of analgesic, followed by a full stretch of his body. It would be the second time he would swallow the tablets in a space of about five hours. To weave the 15 strips of aso oke could take a whole day depending on the pattern to be designed on the fabrics, and indeed, how much stamina the weaver can muster.
Philip shares the views of Bright. “It gives a lot of stress because you are seated in one spot for hours as you weave the thread together, so for me I used to see it as exercise,” he says.
There can be short breaks at intervals of five hours in between the weaving, depending on the resilience of the weaver. It is a period used only to refresh and to eat, before the weaver returns to the loom to continue the weaving process.
The setting up of the tools relies on the technique that involves interlacing a set of thread, warp and weft, at right angles, to form the striped patterns on the aso oke fabric. The sets of thread, which are interlaced together on the loom are arranged in line with the pattern or design to be created on the aso oke fabric. For more elaborate design, the weaver simply adds supplementary wefts. It is an age-old technique that has apparently defied the touch of modern technology.
“I can tell you that no machine whether in China or wherever can make aso oke fabrics that we make, the types of fabrics they use machine to make only try to look like aso oke, but it is not the same like the ones we weave here,”Philip says.
The horizontal looms where weavers like Philip, Geogisberg and Bright sit for hours as they weave the thread, take the shape of log cabins. Each weaver inserts the thread into the aasa (striker) through the omu (extenders). On the upper hand of the omu is the okeke (wheel) used for pulling the omu up and down. There are two itese (pedals) under the omu, which the weaver presses down interchangeably during the weaving process. The itese when pressed enables the warp to open and the reel put through to one side while the aasa knocks the reel to and fro to another side making the reel to be finely set interchangeably. The weaver simultaneously handles the oko (shuttle), throws it inside the open warp to be received by his other hand. The continuous process results in the thread being woven to aso oke fabric. At intervals of about 15 minutes, the weaver uses the drawer to pull the carrier on which the thread is attached, towards his loom. At the end of the process, 15 strips of aso oke fabric would have been woven – enough to be stitched together to make fila and iborun for a newly wedded couple.
To make a complete outfit for a client, the weaving process can take as long as three days, to produce the strips that will afterwards be stitched together, says Philip.
But as stressful as the process is, Philip expresses delight in weaving aso oke fabrics.
“I can tell you that I have several clients abroad that I make aso oke for, so even though there are many other types of attires, the thing is that aso oke will always have those that want to wear it,” he says.
Indeed, there was a time baggy trousers and afro hairstyles were the fad, but they have faded away. Fashion changes like a girl changes clothes, but the aso oke traditional attire, which has been in existence since the late 8th century has remained alluring and enduring as its age-old weaving process.
African-American, Mrs. Yeye Akilimali Funua Olade, an ardent lover of everything African, hardly wears any clothing apart from aso oke. She sums up her reasons thus: “Aso oke is the most beautiful cloth in the World, so every day I want to be the most beautiful I can be! No inferior cloth again for me o!”