In August 2018, a rather spirited dancer – also known as British Prime Minister Theresa May – wore a custom-made Akwete jacket by Emmy Kasbit. The Akwete cloth is a hand-woven fabric from the Akwete area, near Aba in Abia State. This weaving tradition is considered to be as old as the Igbo nation. Originally known as ‘Akwa Miri’, which translates to ‘cloth of the water’/towel, its purpose stretches across the board. From everyday use to occasions and masquerades.
An Akwete chief, Rufus Nna James, fought for the cloth to garner international attention. By 1963, it was exhibited at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., the British Museum in the UK, and the Textile Museum of Canada. A move that proved lucrative for the community. Prince Charles and Princess Diana brought further international recognition to the fabric by commissioning it in 1990. In more recent times, you may also have spotted Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the fabric as well. Here’s what you need to know about this fabric made in Nigeria:
The first versions of the Akwete were made from cotton on a broad loom called ‘nkwe’. It’s said that Akwete weavers incorporated materials such as raffia, sisal-hemp and silk after foreign influence. Due to its weightier nature, Raffia is often used to make the masquerade outfits and warrior’s head gear. Meanwhile the hemp material is used to make the likes of ropes, towels and handbags.
Lastly, the spun cotton is reserved for everyday clothes due to its comfort element. However intricate motifs made with rayon or silk are woven onto the cotton for formal dress. The more decorative designs are reserved for ceremonies such as chieftaincy conferrals and weddings. It is possible to find modern versions elaborately made entirely from rayon, silk or polyester. Because they are all made by hand, the pieces can’t be duplicated.
Growth in Popularity
Akwete popularity grew in the region and beyond due to palm oil trade. In the 19th century, the Abia State was a centre of the palm oil and palm kernel trade. The Igbo began to trade the fabric for goods from international traders and the Sahara, as well as, other regions of Nigeria. This, along with the cloths vibrant colours and creative designs, helped spread the cloth’s fame. Making the Akwete one of Nigeria’s most famous textiles.
Legend has it that a woman named Dada Nwakata pioneered the intricate woven designs seen today. Although the weaving tradition existed long before European contact between the 14th and 16th century, Portuguese traders inspired the new design. Nwakata unravelled and studied the textiles these traders brought. She then added some creative innovation to the design to create the Akwete known today. It is said that she put a spell on her weaving loom to protect her elaborate designs. Only on her passing did her close friend, the only person she allowed to witness her weaving, share the weaving process.
According to Lisa Aronson, the author of African Women in the Visual Arts, the myth was created in order for Akwete women to maintain control of the craft. Due to its lucrative nature, they required a certification of ownership that would prevent neighbouring villages from capitalizing on it.
The weaving is done on a loom and there are two types. There’s the horizontal loom used by male weavers and the vertical loom for women weavers. With dimensions such as 78.74 inch by 59.06 inch, the latter produces cloth twice the height of the loom. According to an article published in Vanguard Nigeria, ‘After processing the cotton to desired thread form, the weaver fixes a set of threads on the loom to form the warp and then the weft thread (net-work of thread) is passed over and under the warped thread. The weft thread can be passed over more than one warped thread at a time to produce variations of thread colours and patterns in the woven cloth. As the weaving progresses, the finished cloth is slipped down over the lower beam and up and back. Then, the weaver uses a weaving stick to separate the odd and eve warp thread before she winds the weft thread onto a long narrow stick which is passed from side to side.’
The end result is a continuous wrap that is worn as a single panel. This is a unique feature in the woven fabrics as most end products are two panels joined together. They can be single or double faced, with the latter presenting motifs on both sides.
Motifs & Patterns
Akwete weavers claim that there are over hundred motifs in existence. It’s believed that the designs are revealed to the weavers by the gods. Thus, each weaver has an unwritten copyright for their design which no other artist is permitted to copy. The motifs are named after their appearance and often play a role in social status. Some designs are reserved for royalty such as the tortoise motif called ‘Ikaki’. With slow and deliberate movements, the tortoise is considered to have king-like qualities. If a non-royal wore this design they would be punished or sold into slavery. Then there is the ‘Ebe’ design which is considered a protective talismans ideal for pregnant women and warriors.
When it comes to patterns, there are four main ones used in Akwete cloths. There is the plain ‘Etirieti’, which is made up of stripes and squares. The vibrant ‘Akpukpa’, the complex ‘Ahia’ and lastly, the intricate ‘Ogbanaonweya’. Unlike the Kente and Barkcloth that was made by men, Igbo women traditionally handled Akwete weaving. They would begin as soon as their arms were long enough to operate the loom. It can take weeks to weave one of these wide masterpieces.
Today, it’s incorporated into contemporary fashion through designers such Kenneth Ize and Chinasa Chukwu. Emmanuel Okoro is most noted for his use of the cloth under his brand Emmy Kasbit. Using hand woven textiles made in Abia Sate, he fashions modern interpretations of dresses, skirts, shorts, suits and jackets. Chinasa Chukwu of Weruzo gravitated towards the cloth because sustainability and cultural preservation is vital to her brand.
The Akwete craft manages to pass on the tangible history, while easily adapting to modern styles and expressions. With the ability to blend with other materials, there are unlimited possibilities open to this cloth.