The Akwete Textile

Akwete cloth is a unique hand woven textile produced in Igboland for which the town of Akwete in Abia state, South Eastern Nigeria is famous. The raw materials used in its production are wool, cotton, silk, raffia, cotton and the bark of certain trees (hemp). It was originally referred to as “Akwa Miri” (Cloth of the water) meaning towel. The traditional Igbo weaving as demonstrated in Akwete processes sisal-hemp, raffia and spun cotton into finished product on a wide vertical loom. While the coarse raffia materials were used by masquerades and in the past as head gear for warriors among other uses, the hemp material was used to weave towels, ropes and handbags. The more comfortable and colorful spun cotton is used to weave cloth for everyday wearing.

Dada Nwakata is highly acclaimed as the pioneer of the highly ornamented intricate weft patterns on Akwete cloth. She used imported cotton and silk (probably rayon) yarns. Dada Nwakata unravelled threads from an open woven cotton cloth locally known as Acham, brought to the area through trade with the Potoki (Portuguese) sometimes between the 14th and 16th centuries. After studying the weave structures of the heavily ornamented cloth, Dada Nwakata copied them and secretly began to weave a new style of Akwete designs. The style of her weave structures were revealed after her death by a deaf and dumb friend who was the only person she permitted in her company when she wove her cloths.

When European cloths were introduced into the Igbo area in the mid-nineteenth century, they were used in conjunction with the locally made apparels, Akwete. However, the locally made cloths were still in high demand. To them, it was simple and provided more comfort than the imported European cloth. They therefore preferred the native cloth to the European ones. It should be recalled that the indigenous dress during the early colonial period was generally a loincloth and beads. While men wore strip of indigenous cloth round their waist, women wore short cloth round their waists reaching to the knees. This was supplemented with beads (mgbaji or jigida) and such other body decorations such as the Uli.

Akwete cloth became popular when Abia State became a center of palm oil and kernel trade. The people of Igboland began trading Akwete cloth for all sorts of products with people of other regions and ethnicities, and the cloth’s fame spread. The women who make Akwete cloth usually start doing so at a very young age. The Akwete community considers cloth weaving to be a gift; you have to be born with it. Young girls begin weaving cloth as soon as their arms are long enough to work the loom, and make sections that range from 15-to-30 inches wide. As their arms grow and strengthen, they weave cloths up to 50 inches wide. Each cloth can take weeks to weave. There were other weaving centers in the Eastern provinces at Nsukka, Udi and Abakaliki areas; the Nsukka weavers called theirs Orii, claimed to be an imitation of the Akwete cloth; Eventually the creative designs and vibrant colors made Akwete one of the most famous textiles in Nigeria. It has been said that their contact with Europeans led to the invigoration of the craft. Akwete weavers were more inventive as well as receptive to change and innovation. European presence had brought about improved quality, improved patterns and designs as well as a larger market. European fabrics offered many alternative patterns, designs and motifs from which Akwete weavers copied their own.

Akwete Weaver
Akwete Weaver
Akwete weaver
Akwete Weaver, International Trade Fair, 1962, Lagos
Akwete Weaver
Akwete Weaver

Photo: Unknown Photographer

Some Akwete cloths are in the patterns of red and black designs, interwoven in geometric patterns on the white background which is favoured by Igbo men. It is mainly used as a towel for bathing. The Akwete cloths, woven from sisal-hemp fibres are of coarse type, used by masqueraders, and by warriors as headgears, while those made from raffia fibres are used on religious occasions like the Ozo titleship, and for mourning by women. The most popular Akwete cloth is the type of cotton fabric woven from cotton fibers in colorful patterns; the weavers have much preference for bright and strong colors like red and yellow.

The four main patterns in Akwete cloth include;
ETIRIETI (GEORGE) which is rather plain and made up of mostly stripes and squares.
AKPUKPA is a very vibrant pattern that is often purchased by foreigners.
AHIA is a rather complex design that is controlled by the number of heddles (a cord or wire that the thread passes through).
OGBANAONWEYA, an intricate pattern used mostly by the Akwete community itself.

Early Akwete
Women of Oloko in Ikwuano Local Government Area of Abia State, Nigeria, in Akwete Textile. They are the grand women behind the Aba Women’s Riot of 1929.
Akwete cloth
Ijobride with Akwete cloth
Akwete wrapper
Women in Akwete Wrapper

Photo Credit: Roving Insight

As a side, the Women of Oloko as seen above are tying the Ekerebite of Akwete wrapper which is worn on special days after a victory in a community. The woman in the middle is Madam Nwanyiruwa, wife of Mazi Ojim. She was a traditional nurse who specialised in child circumcisions, she challenged Mr. Emeruwa, the Census man who sent Warrant Chief Okeugo of Oloko to conduct a census of all the men, women and domestic animals in Oloko. That challenge was what led to the Aba Women’s Riot of 1929.
(Information on Aba Women’s Riot of 1929 provided by Dr Raphael James and Mrs Ijeoma Okere)

The decorative motifs are given names which are suggestive of their appearance. A few among them are animal’s heart; children’s fingers; comb; earring; snake-back; stool and tortoise. However, some weavers can give different names to motifs that are not suggestive of their appearance. In the olden days, the “tortoise” motif (ikaki) was only worn by members of royal families because the tortoise was considered wise and cunning. It was important enough to be associated with kings and chiefs, and if anyone from non-royal family wore it, he or she could be punished or be sold into slavery. The ebe design is especially reserved for use as a protective talisman for pregnant women or warriors. Most of these designs or motifs are by inspiration because the weavers claim that certain motifs are revealed to them by the gods, and as a result, no weaver is allowed to copy the design and it therefore dies with its owner. Akwete weavers are multi-talented and have adapted to modern influences, incorporating new motifs such as the Nigerian coat of arms, Nigerian flag, the logo of FESTAC (the 2nd All Black Festival of the Arts held in Nigeria in 1977) as designs on their cloths.

Akwete CLoth
This Akwete cloth combines ‘ikaki’ design with several other patterns in a linear grid arrangement, the overall effect of which resembles a strip weave
Akwete designs
Akwete cloths on display at a market
Combination of striped, zig zag, and a checkered pattern

Photo Credit: Lisa Aronson, Art Discovery

Akwete cloths attracted the patronage of the Ijo and the Igbo for title-taking and other ceremonies as well as visiting tourists as souvenirs and for interior decorations. While some of the weavers wove on order, others wove and sold to middlewomen who helped to market the products.

Akwete Cloth from Bolakoka for “The Yanga Bride’
Embellished Akwete Cloth from Bolakoka for ‘The Yanga Bride’
Akwete Cloth from Bolakoka for ‘The Yanga Bride’

Credits for ‘The Yanga Bride’ : Model @cynthia_damodel, Make Up Artise/Gele @ heavenessencebeauty, Jewelry @gbengaartsmith, Textile Attire @bolakoka, Photographer @evi_photography, Photography Assistant @8figures_ @provab

The importation of broadloom and machine-made yarns into the igbo area was a factor that affected cloth weaving. In order to attract market and face the challenge posed by imported cloths, local weavers had to use imported yarns. Though the imported yarns were too expensive for indigenous weavers, the Akwete weavers adopted the colorful machine-made yarns in place of local cotton threads in their weaving. The Akwete weavers were able to navigate the many changes that accompanied colonialism and capitalism to keep their industry alive and strong. The result was producing beautiful colourful cloths in place of the dominant white and at times dull background. The broad looms, Nkwe were introduced into Akwete in 1946 which reduced time spent in weaving by producing a wider piece at a time against weaving two to three separate pieces of narrow cloths that were later joined together to produce a piece of wrapper. The high cost of the imported broadloom and machine-made yarns led to the idea of forming a cooperative society aimed at obtaining yarn direct from the firms at reduced prices.

Wider markets were created for Akwete cloths through exhibitions where they were widely advertised as wearing apparel and as works of art. Akwete cloths enjoyed so wide a circulation and market that the problem was not marketing and distribution of their products but obtaining regular supplies of yarns at reasonable prices. The effects of the wide publicity were increased demand and high prices for Akwete cloths as well as increase in the number of weavers. Many weavers took up weaving as a full time occupation with the establishment of a Textile Training Center at Aba which produced famous weavers like Madam Jorji Nmereji Mgbokwo, known as “Madam Mgbokwo Jorji,” amongst others. On her death, the family changed its name from Jorji to George (the name given to the Indian Madras imported into southeastern Nigeria, and which Akwete weavers replicated and reproduced) with a monument of honour that still stands in Akwete today.