Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Sacred and Ceremonial Textiles: Proceedings of the Fifth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Chicago, Illinois, 1996. (Minneapolis, 1997).


Copyright 1996 by the author.


While researching the ritual meaning of cloth among the Eastern Ijo of the Niger Delta, I examined the contents of a number of family owned trunks in which were stored old and much valued cloths traded from elsewhere in Africa, Europe, and India. One type of cloth which I frequently found in these collections was this one (See Fig. 1) made up of three, or sometimes four, woven strips that are sewn along the salvage and decorated with supplemental weft-float design. The Eastern Ijo regard this cloth as a valuable heirloom for its trade value and for the fact that its designs evoke spiritual powers associated with the sea .. The Eastern Ijo refer to this particular cloth as ikaki or tortoise, a water spirit (owu) known in Ijo lore for his combination of trickery and wisdom. Not surprising, ikaki cloth is standard attire for kings in certain Eastern Ijo communities.

This textile, like all Ijo cloths, is not indigenous to the Ijo area. Rather, it comes from the Ijebu area of Yoruba land, a region separated from the Eastern Ijo by more than 100 miles of interconnecting rivers and streams (See Fig. 2). The history of its trade to the Eastern Ijo may very well stem from its ritual meaning to the Ijebu Yoruba who are the initial producers of it and in whose culture, the cloth is deeply rooted. This paper will examine the ritual use of this cloth among the Ijebu Yoruba in an effort to determine why it would have been traded outward as it was.

The Yoruba proverb "Eniyan I'aso mi" helps us to explain what cloth means to the Ijebu and other Yoruba peoples. Translated as "People are my cloth", the proverb explicitly equates cloth to the warmth, closeness, and concerns of things that are human. So it is with this weaving from the Ijebu Yoruba area of Nigeria. The Ijebu refer to it generically as aso olona meaning "cloth with patterns, a name derived from its characteristically rich array of weft-float designs. Bearing images of water spirits and other power-laden symbols, the cloth serves as emblems of chieftaincy, priesthood and membership in the ever-powerful Oshugbo society. Thus, it lies at the very core of Ijebu power and leadership as it eventually came to be, albeit on a lesser scale, among the Eastern Ijo.1