Why I No Longer Use Lace & Ankara: A Brief History of Nigerian Textiles
Although the international trade in African textiles is dominated by European and Asian companies, most African nations have rich textile histories and great potential for profitable textile industries. Nigeria has tremendous potential for such an industry, however, modern Nigerians from the underemployed to the elite tend to prefer European and Asian imported fabrics for their illustrious traditional celebrations as well as everyday traditional wear. This is unfortunate, as the Nigerian region has a rich history of textile design and development that dates back to the ninth century and earlier, when textiles were used as currency and traded for gold and other valuables.
As the origin myths of many Nigerian ethnic groups refer to migration from what could have been Egypt or Sudan, it is possible that Nigerian textile traditions span back millennia and were brought to the modern-day Nigerian region when our ancestors migrated there. From adire and aso-oke in the Southwest, akwete in Igboland, duna by the Nupe to indigo in the North, traditional textiles tend to outlast the modern machine-made polyester-based fabrics imported from Europe and Asia. These textiles alongside those manufactured in factories since the end of the colonial period comprise what was once one of the world’s most prolific textile industries. With a peak in the 1980s, the current industry barely resembles its former glory, as 155 factories have shuttered their doors and many handmade textile traditions are fading from history. Those which remain depend heavily on imported raw materials which makes their trade quite volatile, with a minimized benefit to the Nigerian economy.
With the recent drive to embrace Nigerian-made products, a new generation of textile artists and entrepreneurs are utilizing traditional fabrics in modern ways, and many are agitating for a return to the days when Nigeria had the third biggest textile industry in Africa.
The earliest recorded fabric identified in the Nigerian region are the woven textiles found in Igbo Ukwu by an Igbo man, Isaiah Anozie, in his backyard in 1939. These textiles were carbon dated back to the 9th century AD, whereas later findings in Igboland have been dated as far back as 2500BC. The Igbo Ukwu textiles were woven with bast fibres, which are made from tree bark and were used to wrap copper and bronze artifacts.
Although the bulk of the Nigerian textile industry currently imports raw fibers and fabrics for weaving and dying, the Nigerian region has long been rich in cotton, silk, raffia and bark cloth. Prior to European disruption of cross-Saharan trade, Tuaregs traveled across the Sahara for the indigo fabrics made in what is now Northern Nigeria. It is believed that this fabric was woven and dyed entirely with local materials: cotton grown in Zaria, indigo sourced locally and woven on looms made from local timber. According to Uyi Aibueku (2015), “West Africa as a region is the fifth largest producer of cotton globally, with several of its members having an economy based on cotton production.” In Nigeria, cotton is cultivated in the Savanna region and some parts of the South including Kano, Kaduna, Oyo, Ondo, Kwara, Katsina, Jigawa, Ogun, Kebbi, Sokoto & Zamfara states. Silk is found in Yorubaland and was sourced from the Anaphe moth for centuries. Called sanyan by the Yoruba and used in traditional beige aso-oke, this silk variation is now harder to find due to deforestation decimating the moth population (McKinney & Eicher, 2009). Raffia comes from the raffia palm in Southern Nigeria; and bark cloth is made similar to the process of making paper, by soaking and boiling the bark of suitable trees.
In the early pre-colonial period–1500s to 1600s–during which West Africans began to engage Portuguese traders, additional weaving materials became available. Magenta silk scraps shipped from France to Tripoli ended up in Kano and then in the hands of Yoruba and Nupe weavers, now known as alaari (Clarke, 1997). Alaari augmented the sanyan aso-oke used for weddings and chieftaincy ceremonies to make aso-oke the most prestigious fashion available in the region for some time. The agbadas made with aso-oke were particularly popular with the Fulani ruling class during the time of Usman dan Fodio and the muslim jihad which swept across Northern Nigeria. This trend laid the foundation for regional explosion in popularity of the embroidered aso-oke agbadas which came to be a symbol of West African aristocracy and prominence internationally (Clarke, 1997).
Aso-oke was traditionally woven by men on a double-heddle loom, which produced thin strips that were then sewn together to make a larger piece of wearable fabric. Only in the 20th century did Yoruba women begin to weave aso-oke, as many began using single-heddle looms, which could be mounted in their homes (Picton and Mack, 1989). In addition to sanyan and alaari, the third traditional aso-oke style is known as etu, made of deep indigo dyed cotton. These “top cloths” or highest quality clothing came to be used by brides, grooms and wedding guests in agbadas and traditional iro ati buba and now comprise the most recognizable representations of “Nigerian culture” internationally. The aso-oke trade is concentrated in Iseyin, Ede and Okene in Yorubaland (Asehinde, 2017), with artisans selling their wares to major traders concentrated in Lagos and other major cities. In the modern era, more and more designers are using aso-oke for interior décor and furniture.
Also recorded in antiquity, and highly prized, is the textile known as Akwete, a hand-woven fabric made in Igboland, in a tradition believed to be as old as the Igbo nation itself. Akwete is named for the town in Abia state from which it originates. Differently from aso-oke, akwete is woven on the larger single-heddle loom and is usually produced in 78.74 inch by 59.06 inch dimensions, which means it is ready for use as a wrapper upon completion, rather than requiring selvage-to-selvage sewing as traditional aso-oke did (Aronson, 1989). Akwete is also traditionally woven by women rather than men. These women join the cooperative of weavers as soon as their arms are long enough to weave (Gabriel & Nwakpadolu, 1999). Although the original weaving tradition predates European contact by several hundred years, a woman named Dada Nwakata is credited with pioneering the more intricately woven designs, for which akwete became renowned, after contact with Portuguese traders in the 15th or 16th centuries (Aronson, 1989). It is believed that Nwakata studied textiles brought by the traders and innovated on them creating the akwete textile tradition known today.
Traditionally made only with cotton on a broad loom called nkwe, silk, sisal-hemp and rafia came into use by akwete weavers when influenced by foreign textiles. The silk or rayon was usually used to create the intricate motifs on the mostly cotton weave, with such decorative weaves being reserved for formal dress and ceremonial occasions such as weddings and chieftaincy conferrals. The weavers of each of such pieces hold an unwritten copyright. No piece could be duplicated, as the weavers claim the original design ideas are given to them by the gods (Afigbo & Oseke, 1985). The sisal-hemp and raffia varieties, due to their weightier nature, were traditionally used by warriors and masqueraders. The hemp varieties were also used for towels, ropes and handbags. Akwete weaves exploded in popularity in the region and beyond in the 19th century when Abia State became a center of palm oil and palm kernel trade, and Igbos began to trade the fabric for goods from other parts of the Nigerian region, the Sahara and with international traders (Afigbo & Oseke, 1985). Akwete textiles continue to enjoy international acclaim and can be found for purchase with the occasional African arts trader.
The most documented and researched traditional fabric is adire4, 5. Adire originates from the Yoruba women in Abeokuta and Ibadan. It is debated whether the trade originated in Ibadan with Egba women who subsequently relocated to Abeokuta, bringing the knowledge of the adire process with them (Simmons, 2016). A fabric known for its process of resist dyeing using indigo (oro), adire is made through an intricate process in which fabric may be sewn, bunched or tied prior to dying, similar to Japanese shibori, and Malian and Ghanaian indigo, among others. Adire alabere is sewn with raffia or other stitching prior to dying, after which the thread or raffia may be removed to reveal the design. Adire eleko is painted with cassava starch prior to dying, and Adire oniko is tied with raffia prior to dying (Adetoro, 1970) . It is important to note that all traditional adire is dyed in indigo. Fabrics dyed in multiple colors, are more commonly known as kampala.
Kampala is a distinct fabric style similar to the batik fabric believed to have originated in Indonesia, in which fabric is dyed, then painted or stamped with a resistant paste–often made from cassava–prior to subsequent dying. Kampala is usually dyed multiple times in multiple colors. Due to the extensive dying process, these fabrics tend to retain their vivid color for many years and over dozens of washes. A particular feature of both adire eleko and kampala is the original painting or stencilling done to each piece of fabric, which is not common in other fabrics of the Nigerian region. The painting is usually done by hand, using peacock feathers; whereas the stencils vary in size and are made with carved wood or recycled tin cans. The original artwork can reflect traditional Yoruba symbolism or depict important events, such as the stencilled adire created to commemorate the silver jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary in 1935 (Victoria & Albert Museum, 2016). With increasing numbers of Nigerian designers reaching international acclaim, modern adire and kampala are enjoying greater appreciation for their beauty and superior quality. Adire and kampala fashions have been worn by such prominent figures as Michelle Obama, dressed by Maki Oh, and Lupita N’yongo, dressed by Busayo.
In the North, the Hausa also make indigo-dyed cotton fabrics in a 500-year-old process similar to that of adire. Adire is storied to have been transferred to the South from Northerners of antiquity. Indigo, potassium and ash are mixed with water in the pits, and then the cloth soaked for up to six hours. The longer the fabric is soaked, the deeper the color of the final product (Purefoy, 2010). Incredibly popular across the Sahara in pre-colonial days, the highest quality indigo fabric from Kano was reserved for the royal class, but won the hearts of international visitors, consistent with other fabrics across the Nigerian region. Heinrich Barth, one of the earliest colonists to visit Kano wrote home excitedly about his purchase of an indigo shirt in the 19th century. According to Monica Mark (2013):
For centuries, merchants flocked across Saharan trade routes to buy the deep blue cloth of Kano, a former emirate which in its heydays rivalled Timbuktu for wealth and scholarship. Traded for gold, ivory and salt, the city’s indigo fabric became a symbol of wealth and nobility. Even today, indigo turbans are reserved for the emir’s courtiers…Known as the “blue men of the desert”, Tuaregs still travel thousands of miles over the Sahara’s dunes to buy the fabric. Swathed in blue-black turbans that reveal only their eyes, the nomads earned their nickname from a penchant for cloths whose dye hasn’t fixed, staining their faces. “Even the war in Mali hasn’t stopped them coming,” said Aleja Audu, the city’s 73-year-old sarkin karofi or chief dyer.
It should be noted that the Fulani are known for a colorful wedding textile, however, the Fulanis known to trade those come primarily from Mali and not from Nigeria.
Lesser documented textiles include the duna dowry wrapper, woven indigo of eastern Yoruba land, woven cotton of Tatiko and aso olona. Woven by Nupe women of Bida in Northern Nigeria, the duna6, 7, 8, 9 textile is primarily made of imported cotton, with rayon used for the intricate motifs. With individual pieces smaller than the akwete, but much wider than aso-oke strips, a duna is usually comprised of two pieces sewn together to make a wrapper which may be used in weddings or by prominent women. According to Gillow (2003), “Fringed Duna cloths were used at weddings to wrap around the shoulders of the bride and groom to denote the formation of a new family.” Bunu and Igbomina indigo-dyed wrapper fabrics woven by women in eastern Yorubaland differ from adire in that the fibers were often dyed prior to weaving which allowed the artisans to create motifs similar to what is seen in the akwete and duna originals (Renne, 1992).
Tatiko, a town near Minna in Niger State is reputed to have preserved its textile weaving tradition in the face of collapse of other weaving industries. According to Aliyu Hamagam (2012), “In Tatiko, there is no single household that you could find, which does not have an installed traditional loom machine for textile production.” Children are trained in the art of textile weaving at a young age, and expected to continue the trade after completing their education. Unlike other traditional weaving systems, Tatiko weavers utilized local dyes in multiple colors; and in recent times have begun to use recycled colored fibers in their weaving to save on costs and time. The highly ornate aso olona10, 11 from Ijebu-Ode in Yorubaland, with antique specimens in the Royal Scottish Museum of Edinburgh was traditionally woven by women and used exclusively by members of the Ogboni secret society. Eventually the garments were traded along the Niger Delta region as they were highly prized for use in traditional rituals. (Aronson, 1992).
During the age of colonization, Western education led to increased importation and usage of European dress and textiles for everyday wear, however Nigerians continued to prefer traditional and African-inspired imported fabrics for customary celebrations like weddings, naming ceremonies and other major occasions. In order to benefit from the local textile production knowledge, the modern era textile manufacturing industry was established in 1957 with Kaduna Textiles Ltd (KTL). Several factories followed, including Arewa Textiles, United Nigerian Textiles Ltd (UNTL) and Nortex in the North and others throughout the country (Maiwada & Renne, 2013). Many others sprang up in the subsequent decades so that by 1985, the textile industry was at its peak, its 180 factories competing with only South Africa and Egypt in terms of production volume and sales in Africa. These factories primarily focused on producing cotton fabric and printing what became known as ankara fabric, heavily influenced by the imported fabrics which Europeans had begun manufacturing to African tastes in the late 1800s. These fabrics were more accessible to the Nigerian consumer than the prior weaves and dyed fabrics due to higher volume and reduced cost. The demand for handwoven fabric diminished and the local textile trades slowly began to collapse. (Onyeiwu, 2013)
Babangida’s Structural Adjustment Program helped to decimate the textile manufacturing industry by making it more expensive for textile manufacturers to import necessary equipment and parts due to the devaluing of the Naira. In the 2000s the influx of cheaply manufactured foreign ankara fabrics, many from China, drove down the price of the locally manufactured fabrics which resulted in the collapse of one of the world’s largest textile industries with 180 factories becoming only 25 in a matter of 15 years (Maiwada & Renne, 2013).
From 2010 to 2015, the Nigerian government imposed a ban on textile importation which resulted in so much smuggling that 85% of fabrics sold in the country were smuggled in (Aibueku, 2015). The high cost of local fabrics continues to be related to the cost of power generation for manufacturers, the cost of acquiring capital and the difficulty of importing up to date machinery and equipment. Hence the attractiveness of the importation of fabric for dyeing, raw materials for weaving and finished textiles for retail. In a 400 billion dollar global textile industry, China takes half. African fabrics make up 1% of the industry with 4 billion dollars in annual sales, with Nigeria taking up 38% of the demand for African fabric. Eighty-one percent of African print fabric is produced in either China or India, whereas West Africa as a region is the fifth largest producer of cotton in the world (Aibueku, 2015).
Many Nigerian and other African millennials are beginning to see the value in their traditional textiles, with young women collecting their mother’s dusty aso-oke, noting how well they’ve endured for generations. More and more of these traditional Nigerian textiles are being exported as the age of social media has diminished global borders and provided global visibility into the process and durability of Nigerian textiles, beyond the European and American art traders.
With cotton, silk, bamboo, indigo and other raw materials growing in various parts of the country, Nigeria can develop its textile industry to a point where no fabrics or raw materials need to be imported. The climate in Osun and Ondo states is also conducive to the growth of industrial hemp (Falayi, 2016). With creative innovation and use of new, sustainable fibers, Nigerian textile designers and manufacturers have immense potential to produce aesthetically pleasing, durable high-end textiles for global consumption.
Certain Nigerian textile artists, filmmakers and others are helping to proliferate indigenous textile traditions by promoting their use heavily with their platform. Nike Okundaye-Davies is a world renowned textile artist, business mogul and philanthropist who opened a school in Osogbo in 1983, teaching artists from all over Nigeria adire and painting skills (Vaz, 2015). Many of these artists found success within Nigeria and many were recruited to share their art outside of the country, where they continue to thrive as artists. Amaka Osakwe, the designer behind Maki Oh, who has dressed Michelle Obama, Solange and Lupita N’yongo makes heavy use of adire and other Nigerian-inspired textiles. Kunle Afolayan and Tunde Kelani are known for embracing Yoruba tradition in their cinematic work, which often translates into heavy use of adire and aso-oke in their films. Adekunle Gold, quoted as stating that “adire is magic” has also made use of his platform to significantly celebrate and encourage the use of traditional textiles. With the resurgence of interest in traditional fabrics, there is hope for an expansion of the indigenous textile industry and many hand-weavers are beginning to see the monetary value in preserving their traditions through educating their children in the skills needed to create high quality fabrics for international trade.
As Nigeria struggles to increase exports and decrease imports, the traditional textile industry holds significant promise as a space whose infinite potential has yet to be sufficiently exploited. With education initiatives that drive interest in the industry, thereby preserving traditional textile development; and expanded platforms for textile marketing and innovation in textile design, there is no limit to the potential of the Nigerian textile industry. A growing number of investors are showing interest in the local textile manufacturing industry, however, like most of Nigeria’s economic issues, many of the struggles of this industry can be rectified by a consistent power supply and good governance.
Nigeria’s economic advancement is intrinsically tied with an appreciation for and innovation on indigenous resources, of which textiles are one of an infinite number, but also one of the lowest “hanging fruit.” For the country to embrace the fullness of its enormous potential, individual Nigerians as well as institutions from the SME to government level must fully appreciate the gold mines in the previously undervalued indigenous industries, most especially the textile industry.
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