Philip J. Shea

The visitor to Nigeria is ordinarily most impressed at first by the textiles. The tremendous variety, beauty, flamboyance, colors, textures, elegance and style are all immediately striking. Women and men sometimes store impressive amounts of cloth as well as finished clothing and it is not unusual for people to have clothing which belonged to their grandparents or which are even older than that.This national passion for beautiful textiles is the result of many centuries of development and of considerable investment in time, energy, enterprise, ingenuity and capital is one of Nigeria's most important technical activity: cloth-making.

The variety of Nigerian textiles is rivaled only by the variety of technologies which have been developed to produce these impressive artifacts. These technologies have been developed over many centuries, and they have varied from area to area within the country as well as over time. The development of new technologies has largely been accretional - that is a new technology is often welcomed and employed alongside older technologies.Very seldom have older technologies been discarded altogether and this is of considerable assistance to the historian of textile technology.Most studies done on Nigerian textiles have been concerned with the artistic qualities but more attention has to be paid to the technological and economic aspects behind the production of these materials.

Over the centuries there have been a number of different fibers used by Nigerian producers of textiles. In the Jos Museum, Plateau State, Nigeria, there is an example of an Angas bag with designs in beige and black using tree bark fibers- essential parts of the dress of every adult male Angas historically. Other tree fibers, such as those from the raffia palm tree in southeastern Nigeria, also produce fabrics with beautiful designs. In the northernpart of the country the fibers from the fronds of the dum palm are also woven into mats as well as the ingenious foldable raincoats used by the nomadic Fulbe.

Far and away the most important fibre used in Nigerian textile production has been cotton - and it has been used for well over five hundred years . There have been a large number of different kinds of cotton plants in Nigeria which have been used for textile production. Some of the earliest cotton plants used in Nigeria were perennial bushy plants that last for a number of years and produce cotton each year.The low growing annual cotton plant is almost universally used today. After the conquest of Nigeria the British enforced the cultivation of a particular kind of annual cotton plant which suited the purposes of their own machinery best. The British prohibited the sale of the traditional kinds of cotton, and today virtually all the cotton grown in Nigeria is the kind enforced by the colonial power.

Silk is produced by various kinds of Anaphe moths, and is known in Hausa as tsamiya, in Yoruba as sanyan,in Igbo as akpa-obubu, and in Edo as sapar ubele. Because it is more difficult to use and because its preparation is generally more sophisticated than that of other fibers, its use is presumably more recent than some other fibers. Nonetheless, there is every indication that it has also been used for hundreds of years. As with tree and cotton fibers, there were traditionally a large number of different kinds of silk produced by different kinds of silk worms in Nigeria - and these vary somewhat from area to area. Nonetheless, silk was produced in almost all parts of Nigeria. The different kinds of insects feed on different host trees and plants, and the resulting silk also differs somewhat in color, texture, and quality.

A large number of different kinds of cloth and finished clothing materials were also imported Sometimes the imported cloth would be unravelled so that the fibres could be used in locally produced textiles. With the development of intercontinental trade on the Atlantic coast other fibers seem to have been imported from Asia, Europe andNorth Africa. Wool was imported in this way - although it never became very important in Nigerian textile production. During the colonial period, the kinds of fibers imported increased considerably although the colonial power was not interested in importing raw materials for an industry which competed with their own textile industry. Nevertheless, a large number of different kinds of fibers were imported as yarn or thread.This imported thread was sometimes incorporated into the traditional cloth production techniques. Thus, often a piece of traditional cloth would have a warp of factory produced cotton thread. Also, over the years Nigerian textile producers imported different kinds of silk and silky threads, many of which were increasingly man-made. In recent years, Nigerian weavers have made a great deal of use of artificial fibers such as lurex and other bright fibers.Today many hand-procluced Nigerian fibers are made entirely of artificial fibers.

The introduction of new fibers almost never seems to have replaced previous fibers. Different kinds of products are, of course, produced using different fibers, but commonly incorporated into the production of a single cloth or gannent. Thus, it is common to see a finished piece of clothing which uses as many as three or our different kinds of fibers - and these different fibers add strength,color, texture, sheen, design, and variety to the finished products.Often fibers would be taken long distances from where they were collected or cultivated. In the 19th century they were transported a hundred kilometers or more, from Zaria to Kano. Silk was more valuable and so was frequently transported much longer distances. Raw silk from Bauchi State has been known as far as Senegal.

Preparing cotton thread is difficult. The first stage is from thc cotton bolls, and in Nigeria, this has traditionally been done by rolling an iron rod over the cotton bolls. The seeds are thus squeezed out.This process is ginning, but since the earliest years of colonial rule there have been mechanical cotton gins for the ginning of cotton. This was designed to prepare the cotton for export.Some cotton has always been retained for local processing.The fibers must be carded. This involves combing the cotton fibers between two brushes which cleans the fibers and aligns them in the same direction. After carding the cotton, it is spun into thread. 'These processes have generally been done by women, and, in the Muslim parts of the country, it has often been done by housewives in seclusion.

Extract from P. Shea 'Textile Technology in Nigeria: Practical Manifestations', in G.T Emeagwali (ed.)The Historical Development of Science and Technology in Nigeria, Edwin Mellen, 1992

Cloth Museum

Bibliography of Kuba Textile - Congo Region (Caruso)

Bibliography of Kente

Africa Action: Textiles

The above site focuses on U.S. policy towards Africa with respect to the African Growth and Opportunity Act(AGOA)and other relevant programs.


Please send comments to Dr.Gloria Emeagwali, Professor of History/African Studies, CCSU.