Akwete fabric: an Igbo textile art
By McPhilips Nwachukwu & APPOLOS OZIOGU IBEBABUCHI
Weaving is an ancient craft of man dating back to the beginning of the New Stone Age, when he learned to make coarse clothes from the fibers of flax plants. Weaving is described as the orderly interweaving of fibers and pressing them together to make the fabric.
In Nigeria, cloth weaving is universally practiced in most urban areas and towns like Abeokuta, Ilorin, Iseyin, Akwete, Okene, Benin, Sokoto, Borno, Kano, Bida, and Iseyin, among others. Raffia and cotton are the most used in weaving fabrics in Nigeria.
Fabric is a material of great economic, cultural, political and social importance. Before the introduction of hard currency in Nigeria, cloth was used as a trade commodity and as a monetary item. It is worn for embellishment and decoration of the body, and for ceremonies. There are different types of fabric making among the various ethnic groups in Nigeria. The Yoruba are famous for the traditional weaving of Aso-Oke fabrics.
Aso-oke is just a local cotton fabric woven by men as a narrow striped fabric, usually woven with vertical stripes in different colors on the background color. The Hausa are known for making Kura fabrics which are a deep blue black and a shiny design.
The Igbo are also widely known for weaving Akwete fabric which is mostly done by women. Akwete fabric is a special fabric woven by Igbo women from Akwete region, near Aba, Abia state. It is originally called “Akwa Miri” (Water Cloth) which means towel. Akwete cloth weaving is said to be as old as the Igbo nation.
Socio-Cultural Significance: Due to the dexterity of the weavers who demonstrated great mastery of technique and beauty of design, the art of weaving Akwete fabric would have been mistakenly introduced from Okene in Kwara State where a similar but highly developed style previously existed.
Red and black designs
However, Akwete fabric is available in different colors and designs. Some are in the patterns of red and black designs, interwoven with geometric patterns on the white background which is preferred by Igbo men. It is mainly used as a bath towel. Akwete fabrics, woven from sisal and hemp fibers, are of the coarse type, used by masquerades and warriors as headgear, while those made from raffia fibers are used on religious occasions like the title Ozo and for the mourning of women.
But the most popular Akwete fabric is the type of cotton fabric woven from cotton fibers in colorful patterns; weavers have a great preference for bright, strong colors like red and yellow. Traditionally, the raw cotton fibers that surround and protect cottonseeds undergo certain processes before use, namely: First, the ginning process, by which the cottonseeds are removed from the fibers by rolling a rod on the cotton ball. Second, the bowing process, which involves making cotton fibers fluffy by sliding the string in a small bow against them until they look like cotton.
Third, the spinning process, which is done by pulling the fibers into threads. The treatment of cotton fibers from cottonseeds is not the same as that of raffia fibers. Raffia as we know is the fiber of the fresh palm leaf. The process of extracting fiber from the thorny frond of the raffia palm requires special skill on the part of the weaver. It starts at the tip, the distal end splitting it, then gently pulls towards the inflorescence.
Weaving as a gender-defined job: It dries the fibers in the sun or by a fire to make them dry enough to be used in weaving. Generally, it is the women who transform the fibers of raffia or cotton or any other type of fibers intended for weaving.
Large vertical loom
The weaving is done on a loom. There are two types of loom namely: the horizontal loom which is used by male weavers; vertical loom, used by women weavers. Both types of looms work on the same principle.
An Akwete woman weaves on a large vertical loom which produces fabric approximately 115 cm wide x 1609 cm long; the length of the finished product is normally twice the height of the loom. So, after transforming the cotton into the desired form of thread, the weaver fixes a set of threads on the loom to form the warp, then the weft thread (network of threads) is passed over and under the warp thread. .
The weft yarn can be passed over several twisted yarns at a time to produce variations in yarn colors and patterns in the woven fabric. As the weaving progresses, the finished fabric is slid over the bottom beam and up and down. Then the weaver uses a weaving stick to separate the odd warp thread and watch before winding the weft thread onto a long, narrow stick that is passed from side to side.
It should be remembered that Akwete fabric is usually made of cotton yarn, and decorative patterns are produced with thicker texture cotton or rayon silk threads.
Fabric Policy: Decorative patterns appear mostly on one side of the fabric, although they can appear on both sides. The decorative patterns are named after their appearance. Some of them are animal hearts; children’s fingers; comb; earring; snake back; stool and turtle.
However, some weavers may give different names to designs that are not indicative of their appearance. In the past, the ‘turtle’ (ikaki) motif was only worn by members of royal families and if someone from the non-royal family dares to wear it, he or she could be punished or sold into slavery.
The “ebe” design is specially reserved for use as a protective talisman for pregnant women or warriors. Most of these designs or patterns are inspirational because the weavers claim that certain patterns are revealed to them by the gods, and therefore no weaver is allowed to copy the design and therefore he dies with his owner.