Akwete is a decorative cloth with complex weave designs, creating intricate geometric patterns, made with many vibrant colors. It is usually made into wrappers for women to wear and it is made by the Igbo women of Nigeria.
In the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Africa (2010), Lisa Aronson describes the origins of Akwete, writing that:
“The history of Akwete weaving is traced back to a woman named Dada Nwakwata, an astonishing weaver active in the late nineteenth century, when palm oil trading was at a peak. Using brightly colored imported cottons, Dada Nwakwata began weaving textiles in patterns and dimensions resembling the cloth imports that her eastern Ijo partners in trade had come to value. The Akwete weaver’s repertoire of patterns, numbering well over fifty in the twenty-first century, hints at cloth imports as a source, though with variations and twists that make the cloths quintessentially Akwete.”
A 20th-century Akwete wrapper in the Met’s collection (Fig. 1) is a traditional design with bands of color and rectangular blocks of color with a chevron pattern that is created by a weft float weave structure. It is tan and orange against a brown background with small highlights of green.
In African Dress (2013), edited by Karen Tranberg Hansen and D. Soyini Hansen, Misty L. Bastian describes Akwete cloth as “a strip-woven cotton fabric that many Igbo-speakers consider the true indigenous style of weaving.”
It is produced in a range of different styles and colorways. A wrapper produced by the Akwete Women’s Weaving Cooperative (Fig. 2) has gold-colored lurex thread woven into it to add a metallic element to the pink and purple design. A bright purple Akwete wrapper (Fig. 3) is woven in a way that imitates strip woven cloth, with orange, red, green, and white yarns creating a linear geometric pattern. A mid-20th-century wrapper in the British Museum’s collection (Fig 4.) has 11 weft bands of additional woven weft work that create the geometric patterns of the triangles, diamonds, and animals.
In African Textiles: Color and Creativity Across a Continent (2003), John Gillow defines and explains the origins of the Akwete cloth:
“The Ijebu Yoruba specialize in weaving a cloth that is known in the Niger Delta as ikaki, meaning ‘cloth of the tortoise’. Consisting of three or four strips, sewn selvedge to selvedge, it was often traded eastwards to the people of the Niger Delta. It was traded in the town of Ndoki and, in the mid-19th century, copies started to be made by Igbo women weavers in the nearby village of Akwete. Traditionally woven in darker colours, red, blue, green, purple and black are now popular.
The Akwete clothes are mainly used as women’s wraps in pairs. Akwete women weave a wide variety of fancy, decorated rayon cloth, mostly for ceremonial and ritual use in the Niger Delta. However the largest centre for this type of weaving today is in Okene, where Ebira women weave narrower rayon cloth for non-ritual use in such cities as Lagos.
The women of Akwete weave on an upright wall loom, with cloth about 100 to 127 cm (40 to 50 in) wide. THe Akwete loom is the widest in Nigeria. Usually the warp is continuous, which gives an evenly colouted background for the weave. Blended or shot effects can occasionally be gained by mixing the colours of the warps or using a contrasting colour for the ground weft. On single-faced fabrics (on which the motif only shows on one side), weft floaters are woven in using the swivel inlay technique. The ground is a low twist yarn, basket weave, usually of cotton. The decorative weft floaters are of low twist cotton, silk or rayon. All the thread is bought ready dyed. The decorative weft not used on one line of base weft is carried up to the next row, often on a diagonal, hence outlining the motif. As the warp is continuous, the finished length of the cloth is twice the height of the loom. Owing to uneven tension the clothes tend to be longer on one side than the other one end is wider than the other.” (61)
Akwete cloth is used by some fashion designers in Nigeria. A notable example is Emmy Kasbit, a brand based in Lagos, founded by Emmanuel Okoro. The Toye Cape (Fig. 5) mimics the imitiation strip style of Akwete cloth (Fig.3), and is refashioned into a modern cape silhouette as opposed to the traditional wrapper. The Daisy Jacket has more geometric octagonal shapes like that created by the weft float structures (Figs. 5-6).
When British Prime Minister Theresa May visited Nigeria in 2018 to sign economic and security agreements with Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhar, she wore an Akwete jacket made by Emmy Kasbit. The silhouette of the jacket is entirely modern, but the yellow textile has bands of brown and blue that echo the tradational styles of Akwete.
- Aronson, Lisa. “West Africa.” In Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Africa, edited by Joanne B. Eicher and Doran H. Ross, 144–151. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2010. Accessed March 03, 2021. http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/BEWDF/EDch1021.
- Bastian, Misty L. “Dressing for Success: The Politically Performative Quality of an Igbo Woman’s Attire.” In African Dress: Fashion, Agency, Performance, edited by Karen Tranberg Hansen and D. Soyini Hansen, 15–29. Dress, Body, Culture. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Accessed March 03, 2021. http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/9781474280068/HANSEN0004.
- Gillow, John. African Textiles: Color and Creativity Across a Continent. United Kingdom: Chronicle Books, 2003. https://www.google.com/books/edition/African_Textiles/zmKZ7-y4Q3gC?hl=en&gbpv=0.