‘ụwa bụ dị ka a ewu oda. Ọ na-enye ọ bụla mmiri ara ehi, ma ị Punch na afanyekwa na ya’ –The world is like a goat’s udder. It does not give any milk, unless you punch and squeeze at it. The Igbos(one of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria that live in south-eastern Nigeria) believe that nothing good comes easy, You are only as good as your handwork such can be likened to the story of Dada Nwakata the pioneer of the highly ornamented intricate weft patterns on Akwete cloth.
According to author Colleen Kriger, In her book “Cloth In West African History,” Kriger said “The invention of Akwete cloth is conveyed by way of a cliche, or mnemonic stereotype, which takes the guise of a legendary weaver known as Dada Nwakata…it is unlikely Dada Nwakata did it single handedly.” A. E. Afigbo, a renown Igbo historian in (1985), believes Dada Nwakata unravelled threads from an open woven cotton cloth locally known as Acham, which was brought to the area through trade with the potoki (Portuguese) sometimes between the 14th to 16th centuries when the latter operated as a rope for Biafra. Dear Dada however, studied the weave structures, and copied them, adapted them and created new designs. She is generally credited as being the first to weave with cotton in the Akwete cloth-making process. 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. In all, history of Akwete cloth is shrouded in who you talk to. On the one hand, the Portuguese are said to have inspired it and on the other hand, people believe it to have been created by a woman named Dada Nwakata. Some believe the art of Akwete-cloth weaving was introduced from Okene in Kogi state where a similar but highly developed style earlier existed. Others believe in all three.
The Akwete clothes refers to the cloth woven in the Ndoki town of Akwete in Ukwa East local Government Area of Abia State.Although some other communities around the region so participate in this craft of cloth weaving, but Akwete is the most renowned of these weaving communities. Akwete cloth is made from palm, woven entirely from cotton, in a continuous warp, and supplementary weft patterning by women using the broad vertical loom for women and the horizontal loom for men. Historically, for cloth weaving, the men of Igboland fished and the women made the cloth from local materials.
Regions near and far from Akwete also make the cloth, and call it Akwete cloth, but the Akwete community is arguably the best at it. During the mid- to late nineteenth century, weaving grew from part-time activity that occupied some women, to full-time occupation in which all Akwete women participated. At this period, Akwete weavers responded to the patronage of neighboring Ijaw peoples of the Niger- Delta, devising novel techniques to create desired patterns in new textile materials.
Nwakata inspired some local legends as well: She allegedly put a spell on her weaving loom so that nobody could steal her elaborate and stunning designs. Only after Nwakata died did her close friend — the only person (a deaf and dumb) she allowed while she wove—reveal Nwakata’s weave structure. She used imported cotton and silk (probably rayon) yarns. Other raw materials used to create Akwete cloth include wool, raffia (a type of palm), hemp and tree bark.
How it is made
The Akwete community considers cloth weaving to be a gift you’re born with. Young girls begin weaving cloth as soon as they are considered strong in arms. As they grow, they weave from 15-30 and 30-50 inches wide.
First, ginning process, by which the cotton seeds are removed from the fibers by rolling a rod over the cotton ball.
Second, bowing process, which involves making cotton fibers fluffy by flicking the string of a small bow against them until they look like cotton wool. Third, spinning process, which is done by pulling the fibers into threads. Processing of the cotton fibers from the cotton seeds is not the same with that of the raffia fibers. Raffia as we know is the fibre from the fresh leaf of the palm tree.
The process of extracting fibre from the thorny raffia palm frond demands a special skill by the woman weaver. It all starts from the tip, the distal end by splitting it, and then gently pulls down to the inflorescence. It is then left to dry, that is, the fibers in the sun or by the fire place so that it can be dried enough for use in weaving.
The size of the Akwete fabric is what distinguishes it from other textiles made on vertical loom and it takes atleast three or more days to produce a standard length cloth (115cm wide x 1609cm long) with complex and intricate design. The length of the finished product is normally twice the height of the loom. The process of weaving demand a weft thread. This 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. she then warps another that winds the weft thread onto a long narrow stick which is passed from side to side. Each cloth can take weeks to weave.
Who wears what?
Just like most women’s weaving throughout Nigeria, Akwete weaving is one of the gorgeous frame loom done with continuous warp and other accessories. The Akwete cloth in Akwete is called “Akuru” (something woven). Before Dada’s innovation and revolution to “Akuru”, Akwete were woven only as “Akwa mmiri” meaning Towel.
However, Akwete cloth comes in different colours and designs. Some are in the patterns of red and black designs, interwoven in geometric patterns on the white ground which is favored by Igbo men. It is mainly used as a towel for bathing. The Akwete cloths, woven from sisal-hemp fibers are of coarse type, used by masqueraders, and by warriors as headgears, while those made from raffia fibers are used on religious occasions like the Ozo titleship, and for mourning by women.The “ebe” design is specially reserved for use as a protective talisman for pregnant women or warriors
In former times, only royal families could wear the ‘Ikaki’ (the tortoise) motif and if an ordinary person attempts to wear it, he could be sold into slavery. The weavers claim that certain motifs and designs were revealed to them in the dreams.
The four main patterns in Akwete cloth include:
1. Ahia, a rather complex design that is controlled by the number of heddles (a cord or wire that the thread passes through).
2. Ogbanaonweya, an intricate pattern used most by the Akwete community
3. Etirieti, made up of mostly stripes and squares. It is plain.
4. Akpukpa, a very vibrant pattern that is most often purchased by foreigners
Today, patterns and designs adapt to customer demand.
Apart from the fact that Abia is the center for kernel and palm oil trade, the colorful Akwete cloth is also a major part of the region’s economy because of its creative designs,it attracts tourists who are eager to buy it and see how it is made.There are also other cultural attractions such as festivals, traditional dances showcasing Akwete wears. 1963 was considered a landmark year for Akwete cloth. An exhibition dedicated to Akwete cloth was held at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C amongst other exhibitions. Akwete Weaving Center is a place where textiles meet creativity.