Aso oke – Yoruba strip woven cloth from Nigeria

Yoruba aso oke (prestige cloth) weaving on the narrow-strip loom is without doubt one of the most vibrant and successful textile traditions in Africa today, with brightly coloured rayon and metallic lurex thread fabrics woven on traditional looms a key feature of many weddings throughout Nigeria and beyond. Its continued survival owes much to the ability of cloth weavers and traders to adapt to the changing tastes of their customers over a period stretching back many centuries. Here we will look back at an earlier era and consider one of the finest aso oke cloths to survive from the late nineteenth century.

West African Textile - Aso oke from Nigeria

Nineteenth century Yoruba aso oke shawl, cotton and silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Paired strips of blue and white check cloth woven from hand spun and indigo dyed local cotton alternate with single strips woven from silk. The cotton strips are decorated with elaborate float weave patterns, also in silk. This vivid magenta coloured silk, called alaari in Yoruba, was until the early decades of the twentieth century imported across the Sahara by camel caravan from southern Europe via Tripoli. Cloths woven entirely with this silk were extremely rare and it was more usual to weave it as stripes or weft float decorations into an indigo dyed cloth. Wearing expensive alaari cloths were a prominent and conspicuous display of wealth. Notable features of this exceptional example are both the flimsy and delicate openwork patterning on the silk strips and the extravagant use of much thicker than normal silk on the float motifs.

This is a guest post by Duncan Clarke.

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