“AS492 - Exceptional and early indigo strip weave aso oke from the Yoruba region of Nigeria, with a beautiful and subtle effect achieved by pale indigo warp stripes against a dark indigo check background, with fine hand spun cotton used throughout. The slight sheen apparent in the photo is an effect of a recent washing and starching to prepare it for resale in Nigeria, an old tradition that is still maintained in some districts - it is less visible in reality than under the photo lighting. Retains its original hand stitched seams throughout and is in excellent condition. Age circa 1900. Measurements: 80 ins x 56, 203cm x 142cm.” – on our gallery here.
This cloth is called an iro, and would have been worn as a wrap around skirt by a wealthy Yoruba lady on an important occasion such as a wedding or a chieftaincy ceremony. It would have formed part of a set of cloths woven in the same pattern, along with two or three smaller pieces worn as shawl, headtie, and sometimes a hip cloth. What makes this an exceptional piece ? To my eye what singles out this cloth is the quality of the indigo dyeing. Very dark, almost black, indigo dyed strip weave cloth was prestigious and expensive because of the high number of immersions in the dye required to achieve that colour. When patterned as a fine check or plaid of lighter blue or white threads, it was known as etu, or guinea fowl, after the speckled plumage of the bird. In the Yoruba aso oke tradition etu formed part of a threefold classification of high status cloths along with magenta silk alaari obtained from the trans-Sahana caravan trade network, and local beige wild silk called sanyan.
On this cloth the small scale check of etu is replaced by a larger check design that was called petuje, that literally translates as “kill and eat guineafowl” but meant “surpasses etu”. Here though it is combined with warp stripes in a beautifully dyed mid-blue. One stripe runs along the selvedge of each strip while a second is set slightly off centre to create the regular layout.