A History of Okene Cloth Weaving

Okene Cloth is a woven cloth, woven at the loom in Okene by the Ebira people. Okene is town located in the central senatorial district of Kogi State in Nigeria. The town is based in a Local Government Area with the same name. The predominant ethno-linguistic group in this area are the Ebira of Central Nigeria. The Ebira people are known to be a very extrovert and hardworking people. Traditionally they are farmers and cloth-weavers.

Ebira Women have been weaving Okene Cloth for centuries. The local name for Okene Cloth is Ita-inochi. This woven cloth has been traded in the Okene main market from time immemorial, and people travel from far and wide to purchase the beautiful cloth, which varies from a simple weave to more sophisticated patterns. A variety of threads is used to weave the cloth which gives rise to the different names for the cloth woven. For instance the name Ache Ohu is derived from Ohu thread, Ache silk is derived from silk thread.

When I was growing up, the Oguntoro (the loom) was commonly seen in the homes of most women. I grew up visiting both my maternal and paternal grandmothers and speaking to them as they wove at the loom in the evenings. It gave a very soothing therapeutic feel to the evening by the moonlight. It was something that all women did.  It was a skill handed down through generations and women prided themselves on not only being able to provide beautiful clothing for their families for important cultural occasions (weddings, funerals and festivals), but also being able to generate more income for the family by selling the Okene Cloth in the main market, where it is very sought after till today. It was the main trade for most women in the family who wove in the comfort of their homes.

The Art of Weaving

The weaving trade is still frought with challenges but has become easier due to the availability of a wide variety of threads. The looms used are predominantly still very traditional and labour intensive. The tools used for weaving consist of the loom that is a wooden instrument made up of about six to seven sticks each with a different purpose. Each stick has its own specific Ebira name that clarifies its use. Some of the names and functions are as follows: the Oholor is used to divide the thread whilst the weaving takes place. The Ohanse determines the pattern and design of the cloth to be woven. The Okaha is used to hit the fabric whilst weaving which gives it the texture required. There is the Ochaha which separates the back from the front of the fabric. Otah and Ogbo are the names of the tools used for measuring the fabric. The Korofo is used to pass the thread before putting it on the loom and the Ipechi is used to put the thread onto the loom. All these tools work in harmony to create the loom that is used to weave the Okene Cloth.

Due to the traditional methods used it can take up to three weeks to produce five yards of fabric. Men need about five lengths of the fabric strips for an outfit whilst women need around four lengths for theirs.

The first thing a weaver needs to master is how to roll the thread on the Ipechi. Once the thread has been rolled, it is then put on the loom using the Ohanse in between to ensure that the back and the front is separated before the weaving starts. Once the thread has been appropriately set up, the weaving commences. The women then start to use their two hands to move the loom up and down using the relevant tools.

It is this rhythmic movement that so many children in Okene have grown up with in their homes. Perhaps it is the sentimentality and nostalgia for this wonderful ambience created by the weaving women that has made Okene Cloth so popular again. On the other hand, the fabric is just very, very beautiful, handmade and unique.

- Ozoza Lifestyle

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