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Promotion of Aso-ofi as gate way for fashion tourism

By Akingbo Adenike Veronica


The word textile, is derived from a word “texere” (textilis) which literally means to weave.  This is because fabrics (cloths) were produced in the past only by weaving. Consequently, the word textile may be used here interchangeably with weaving without incidences of ambiguities.

Weaving in Nigeria is an ancient craft and its antiquity has been attested to from archaeological, written and oral sources. The evolution of the weaving industry in Nigeria, like in any part of the word, must have resulted from the effort of the people to device a means of covering their naked bodies.

As much as weaving is so central to the existence of man and indeed the society itself, its history still remains hazy. However, it is revealed that the everyday needs (challenges) of the pre-historic man, led to the creation of objects using fibres as a medium. Weaving was one of such creations, and is believed to have been instinctively used as an aid in the quest for basic needs of clothing, food and shelters. Most likely, this came about as people observed spider webs, bird’s nests, bearer’s dams, and so forth. Basket making, and weaving were the first craft developed by man. Once the ancient people learned how to weave structure, the possibilities became endless.

In the prehistoric times, weaving of cloths evolved from basketry and mat making. The earliest evidence of both weaving and basketry comes from the Neolithic centuries about 5000BC, although there are indications of the existence of yet more ancient techniques from which these may have derived.  Early examples of basketry and matting, and those of weaving indicate that strands or threats were interlaced by hand.

The art of weaving is the most ancient and fundamental craft which developed independently in many parts of the world. The examination of cloth weaving portrays weaving as one of the nation’s rich cultural heritages which need to be preserved, improved and passed on to the younger generation.

Conceptually, weaving forms one of the most important and fundamental needs of man, and food is rated next to it in the hierarchy of human needs. Thus is so important to man and his existence that, even in the divine order, food is rated next to it, that is, clothing, food and shelter.

 By extension, the clothing needs of man have been satisfied over time through a variety of fabrics ranging from woven to knitted fabrics, crocheted to braided fabrics, bonded to felted fabrics and so forth.

In Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, animal skins were used as clothing. The development of woven materials later replaced this, by the early man and they combined to be a strong and major factor of political, socio-cultural and religious factory in world history today. Nigeria is well known for her cultural and artistic traditions, which have remained vibrant in the face of rapid urban growth and the increasing influence of the western culture and economic institutions. Despite homogenizing trends even tourists visiting Nigeria are stricken by the breath taking varieties of Aso Oke (ofi). This was an evidence of textile production in Nigeria, long before contact with the Europeans. Nigeria is the land that is situated in the heart of Africa. Popularly referred to as the giant of Africa, attest to her artistic riches and significance which have survived the ravages of modernity. Textiles is the body’s next of kin and the most vital and commonly used item of life next to food.

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Textiles have played vital role in the daily up-keeping substance of mankind except for few extreme cases like that of Koma of Plateau and Kemberi of Niger state. People of North East Nigeria who go about naked or half naked or nude. It is a common phenomenon that the first thing a new born baby is given is clothing, a piece of thick cloth to wrap and shield the baby from cold even when the weather is not cold.

 Likewise as soon as a man is certified dead, he received instantly a covering of textile from head to toes. Even when preparations for burial are made, he or she does not go to grave naked. Textile plays a major role.

Significantly Nigerian, especially people from the south Western state beautify their corpse with valuable textiles not minding the fact that all will rot away in the grave. This is long time tradition among Yoruba. According to history, the earliest date of existence of woven fabrics from Archaeological findings of Igbo Ukwu is 9th Century .A.D. Also the use of cotton, the commonest traditional material for clothes was explored in Benin in 13th Century AD.

In the ancient period, occasion determine the type of fabrics to be used. This is a social concept that gives rise to the necessity and the use of aso-ebi (uniform dressing) culture in Yoruba speaking part of Nigeria especially among the south west people of Nigeria. There are different interpretation given to designs and colours, identified on ancient fabrics. They are indigo which are usually in two shades navy blue or purple, light brown which is sourced from roots of plants, crimson red or pink, white from cotton and the cream white butter coloured fabrics made from the navy blue indigo pigments are worn by three classes of women, those who suffer frequent child loss (abiku) and mourning the death of loved ones. The white colour stands for purity, integrity and distinguishes the users as sacred in most cases the kings and especially in Benin and Ife culture wherever they appear in public to bless people or perform traditional rites. The Ogboni shawl is also woven white, the Olokun priests and priestesses’ cloth in those days is symbol of authority and unadulterated loyalty. The oral tradition has it that chief priest in charge of the gods and shrines are usually clothed in white.

The crimson red or pink aso oke was common among the Yoruba. In the ancient period, it was worn as wedding, naming, chieftaincy ceremonies and other joyous occasion. It was then symbol of blossoming, rides, victory, beauty and accomplishment. They are commonly found among the Ondo, Ileoluji, Owo, Ijebu and other Yoruba speaking areas.

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The cream white (buttered colour) aso oke (sanyan) which is sourced from a naphe silk is used for funerary rites. The first cited used of it was to wrap corpses and by the turn of the 20thC, the various cultures that produced them began to use them during funeral ceremonies which is very popular among the Ondo and the Ile-Oluji, idanre etc.

The navy blue popular called “Etu” among the Ondo and the Ile-Oluji people of south West Nigeria is reserved for the mature male adults of distinguished achievements in the community but in recent time both male and female use this peculiar weave as ceremonial dresses. Valuably, dressing as a means of identity, personalities such as royal heads (obas, Emirs, Igwes, the Oloris, Chief, Warlord, Hunters e.t.c) and their roles are identified by dressing, this is an aspect of our culture.

 In the ancient period, if Aroko (coded message) was sent in white cloth, it meant peace, and when sent red it signified danger, death and calamity. There are different types of Aso ofi, but the three popular ones are Etu, Sanyan and Alaari. The difference among the three types is the colour. While Etu has to do with dark blue with stripes, Sanyan is carton brown with white stripes and Alaari is crimson. Other types include eya, takunsi, damask, silk, cotton, net, metallic, monogramming, wire – to wire, super net, painting, double weaving and cheek. But they are mainly of modern age. Aso ofi is a costly material for the rich in the olden days particularly Sanyan, Alaari and Etu. But the poor ones would put on a typical cloth known as kijipa. Those who wore kijipa were considered lazy. Kijipa was considered as an ideal cloth for the have-nots usually referred to as “borokini” (commoners) because it was rugged and could be used for three or more years. The durability of kijipa made the Yoruba to tag it “akogi –ma –ya” meaning that which is not easily torn. Aso ofi provides the Yoruba an opportunity to express their perception on whether a person is industrious or from a rich family or lazy. Also, the size of Aso ofi is indicative of social status. There is agbada nla (big agbada), which is for chieftains as well as esiki also known as dasiki, which is a short garment with slits on the sides. Though esiki is for fashion in the contemporary days. It used to be worn by commoners in the olden days.

To care for the traditionally woven fabrics, aso ofi does not require direct use of soap Detergent are never used on them. Wash with potash soak in water for about 30 minutes. Squeeze to remove all dirt and rinse in water  3 times. Aso ofi are washed by local trained personal, herbs are used to wash it which will be beaten with wood (called Oluu).

As regards the functions of hand crafted woven cloth or fabrics (aso ofi), these is a general belief in the African art and crafts production practice tht art works are produced to meet the various needs of the society such as socio-economic, historical and technological development.

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 It is believed that the function of art generally in any society are tailored towards socio-cultural and economic needs of the society. Textiles from their traditional times to the modern age, have played major role in the socio-cultural, economic and technological wellbeing of many parts of this country. Generally, in Nigeria, apart from ceremonial, woven textiles were and still article of trade. Cloth-weaving, call it a relic of the past, it has struggled over the years to keep itself relevant in the contemporary fashion industry. While it may no longer enjoy the popularity and huge patronage of the past owing to the prevalence of imported textile materials in the market, aso ofi has maintained its class among the royals and the rich. Most of the textiles imported into the country include brocade, Ankara, damask or lace materials from China, Japan, the United States, Malaysia and India.

In this regard, an adequate development of weaving leads to better growth in the socio-cultural and economic empowerment of many individuals and communities by ways of job creation, self-reliance and promotion of creativity in textile design, as well as a spring board for the growth of indigenous small scale modern textile industries in Nigeria.

What does the future hold for cloth –weaving (Aso ofi)? Even at that, the women artisans, mostly uneducated, one doubting their efforts to ensure aso-ofi gains wide acceptance again. For they have decided to keep the craft alive and boost their daily in come. It is a communal activity that was passed from one generation to the other and must not go into extinction.

However, there is still anxiety among weavers in the community about row technology may disrupt the indigenous industry. The proper promotion of cloth-weaving (Aso ofi) could serve as a gate-way for fashion tourism like in the mid seventies and eighties when traditional textiles like adire and aso ofi were accepted by Nigerians.

 The cottage industries become tourist’s centres to foreigners visiting the country.  Likewise traders from the corners of the world visit these centres for the traditional textiles. One of the most appreciable souvenirs to foreigners or sojourners in this nation is the indigenous Nigeria textiles which is peculiar to this side of the world.

 Its durability over the centuries has proved its worth likewise its natural creativity that gives it the unique position occupied among other world textile craft. In all, Nigerian textile like many other art forms of ancient Africa goes beyond its day to day use of covering the nude but carries some cultural significance which include: Its interpretation in terms of colour and design. The colour and motif used in the weaving of fabrics have symbolic meaning. Today, the use of ofi is accepted by all ethnic groups in the society. 

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