To step into a textile shop in West Africa is a magic experience! Blankets, strip-woven fabric and printed ready to wear garments are precariously piled, floor to the makeshift ceiling, each alive with the vibrant colours of Africa: rich cobalt blue, terracotta, cream and magenta.
Sometimes, mined from the bottom of the stack, is a fabric shot through with veins of silver or green, identified as the Aso-Oke or country cloths beloved by the Yoruba people. Made and used for centuries, they still play an important part in the cultural life and language of Nigeria.
Cloth production entails a division of labour. Women spin the weaving fibres from cotton, wool and local silk (anaphe infracta or anaphe moloyeni moth). Spinning complete, the yarn is dyed with vegetable dyes made from: kola nut for yellow, camwood for red, mango bark for beige and vitrex grandiflora for black.
Country cloths are woven by men in narrow strips. Each strip uses 324 warp threads and 32 weft passes per square inch. Young boys learn the art of weaving through an apprenticeship: First, how to make a plain white strip, then progressing to the most intricate of patterns. Other decorative techniques may be: ikat- style designs, the use of small holes at intervals and looped floating weft threads appearing only on one side of the cloth.
The arresting design of Aso-oke cloths is created by the grid-like interplay of horizontal and vertical patterns. This is largely due to the inventive alignment of the cloth strips and assembly of the fabric. Although youngsters weave the strips, the most experienced (elderly) weaver is responsible for the aesthetic decisions and cutting, aligning, and sewing the bits together into a textile comprising 17 pieces or more, necessary to fit the clients’ girth.
Most designs have names derived from proverbs in the Yoruba language. i.e: Good follows me and Don’t spoil my peace. They also reflect political affinities and are named after political contestants. Sometimes the colours are subtle. Sanyan cloth is the colour beige, and is called king of cloths. Deep magenta cloths are called Alaari. Names are coined as a marketing ploy and canny textile dealers change the name of a design not selling well. Contemporary designs include English words and phrases energizing marketability. Yoruba cloth is highly prized, traded through West Africa, mostly to women, avidly collected by the Anlo Ewe people of Ghana and sold in the Americas to the descendants of slaves, of whom the Yoruba formed a large percentage.
For me personally, these cloths “sing”. They translate as a visual impression of classical African music and the colour combinations are such that they sometimes have the hues of a lyric, and at others the entire enthusiasm of an orchestra. Colours considered the most beautiful are donned for prestige events and funerals. Fabric is worn wrapped around the mourners’ body like a tube and when cloths are not worn, they are given as gifts for the grave, being interred with the corpse.