Iseyin sits about a hundred kilometres to the north of Ibadan, the Oyo State capital. It’s a significant town in its own right; with a population of well over 300,000 persons, it’s the state’s fourth biggest urban agglomeration. While Iseyin doesn’t match the sprawl and sheer economic power of Ibadan, the town’s people take pride in their own commercial strengths, the foremost of which is its trade in the Yoruba traditional fabric, the Aso Oke.
In fact, Iseyin is widely regarded as the biggest (and probably oldest) production centre for the aso oke. It leads the traditional cloth weaving industry of Oyo’s northern realms, thanks in large part to a steady supply of cotton from farmland in and around its district. The fabric itself derives its name from the Yoruba phrase for “cloth from up north”, a reference to its origins.
A good fraction of households in Iseyin is fully engaged in the production of the aso oke (or aso ofi, as it’s sometimes called). Although contemporary life has gifted the region a number of viable modern firms, the people’s lives still revolve around the older trade in fabrics, other crafts, and farming. It doesn’t appear that the business will be swept away by a surge of all-out westernization any time soon.
Even the weaving of the aso oke continues to be done by hand, as is much of the general fabric creation process. Cotton picked from the fields are spun on a loom, and sorted on a machine designed for this purpose (or by hand, if a machine isn’t available). Then the material has patterns created on it with propellers, rollers, strikers, extenders and pegs; after this, they’re woven into the aso oke fabric.
Iseyin’s substantial contribution to the aso oke trade is helping to prop up the traditional fabrics industry in the South West. Many a vibrant, glamorous ceremony of the Yoruba people are graced by colourful aso ebi (‘uniform clothing’) sewn with Iseyin’s best fabrics. There’s demand for the material from across the country, and from the Nigerian diaspora.
Although Iseyin still has a semi-urban feel to it, visitors get a sense that its people are generally able to fend for themselves. Thanks to the continuing business of traditional textile, the town’s inhabitants have enough to more than just survive.
The aso oke trade does have its challenges. The production techniques used by the small-scale producers in Iseyin and elsewhere in the South West aren’t yielding enough output to compete with the mass production of the Chinese and other foreign producers. Iseyin’s weavers insist that their hand-made textile products are superior to the Asian imports, but also lament that these low priced, lower quality imports hurt their business.
Perhaps the challenges of pricing and mass produced imports are a bigger headache for indigenous aso oke weavers than a gradual shift away from traditional clothing, but it’s possible that a rising apathy among young people toward keeping with the staple wear of ceremonies will pose a real challenge in the future.
On the bright side, Iseyin’s centuries’ old fabric business is getting a facelift. In 2017, the Oyo State government laid the foundation for an Aso Ofi International Tourism Market in the town. It’s expected that the complex, which should span over 13 hectares, will draw in visitors from beyond Nigeria’s borders. A year before, an Aso Ofi Festival day was observed for the first time to celebrate the fabric as a potential tourist attraction and revenue generator.
Aso Oke fabrics will continue to enliven ceremonies across the South West for a long while yet. The people of Iseyin can at least be proud of this contribution to a culture’s survival.
Ikenna Nwachukwu holds a bachelor's degree in Economics from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He loves to look at the world through multiple lenses- economic, political, religious and philosophical- and to write about what he observes in a witty, yet reflective style.