Yoruba classic clothes at weddings: Sanyan, Etu & Alaari – Tola Adenle

Some Yoruba words to keep in mind


A wrap-per.  Aso Oke requires from twelve to fifteen pieces of the woven material depending on woman’s size.


The top – a loose-blouse style that requires  l l/2 yards for a manufactured 45-inch wide fabric.  You buy a complete set of aso oke  and the tailor sorts out the number to use for sewing the buba.


 The head wrap.  As can be seen from blogger’s pictures on this blog, they are a lot more difficult to master.  Many women are actually quite good at it.  Anyway, Nigerians are a very resourceful lot and at many events these days, there are professional gele artists  who will turn my type into gele stars – for fees, of course!


 I’ve written at length about this elsewhere but here it is, again:  the most complete form of Yoruba dressing for women requires ALL of the above – yes, five pieces.  Wear the buba, tie the iro, then the gele, throw the ibo-orun – on your shoulder and not necessarily on your neck as the name implies and it apparently was worn in ages past AND use the fifth piece as you like.  [See below.]

Most young women, understandably, go with the three main pieces, skipping the shawl-type iborun/ipele.  Many even forgo the gele and just wear iro & buba;  these suit them, and there are no rules.  If you are visiting Nigeria, you are a Christian and want to attend church service, get  a gele because Nigerian churches are very conservative although many do not worry about such.


The three Yoruba Classic Aso Oke


The three Yoruba great classics are Sanyan [Sanyanmiran – as I recently learnt, is another name for Sanyan,  thanks to Reader, Mr. Tao], Alaari & Etu – in  that order are worn for big occasions as shown here.  There are variations in weaves and colors but Sanyan is always  khaki-ish plus white; Etu is always black/dark blue and shades close to those while Alaari seems to come with the widest variations although red is the constant.

In the past, these classics were all woven in silk which made them affordable only to royalty and the people of means in society.  Even before the extinction of traditional sericulture among Yoruba people of Southwestern Nigeria, affordable threads like cotton were already in use.

Cotton was grown and played a role in Nigeria’s exports but not any more.  Major cities had cotton ginnery where farmers would take their harvest so that the seeds could be separated before being sold at the Cotton Cooperatives which were like the Cocoa Cooperatives. It would not be long before threads started coming into the country to meet demands of factories that manufactured fabrics as well as local weavers.


With the availability of cotton and the fact that more people could – and wanted to – afford better refinement, aso oke started to be woven – still by hand as it’s done to date – in cotton.

Reference must be made to other ethnic groups in Nigeria that also wear hand-woven Aso Oke which name must have been derived from the upright loom – up in Yoruba is oke and aso is cloth.

Evidences of earlier intermingling from the migratory age shows in the commonality of, for example, etu of Yorubaland in the Southwest and Sokoto (Northwest) and Tiv (Central towards the North East) parts of Nigeria.  What is more, the intricate hand-made embroideries of both the Northwest and Southwest from old clothes bear similarities.

The Yoruba and the Tiv also wear their fila – caps – in the same pattern.

These are all important points that must be borne in mind as one views pictures of clothes of the Yoruba from Southwestern part of Nigeria.

For a Sanyan aso oke (Yoruba Classic aso oke 1 of 3) wedding, blogger’s 4th piece is under a fifth piece iborun made from the same Western fabrics for the buba  for a May 1998 wedding at Ibadan, Nigeria.

WARNING:  The sewn-on furnishing-type bit on the gele  is NOT part of Yoruba dressing but I was not thinking I might one day have to share my personal whims with thousands beyond those at a family event

Etu was worn last by blogger’s family because at the time of the second daughter’s wedding, the weavers got too short a notice to have the “quality thread” needed for all family members; so we went for the Number Three fabrics for the Number Two Child!  Parents can use any one of the three, or may even choose any of the modern vibrant colored and synthetic thread aso oke.  There are no rules, oral or written.

My wish?  That we resist those bottom-of-the-ladder plastic-product synthetics by the Chinese and are audaciously stamped with so-called “copyrights” on patterns not designed by them but copied from old Yoruba designs.




This is the most common Sanyan and it is woven with cotton thread.

Alaari – (I call them ‘the reds’ because unlike the other two, alaari varies a lot but ‘red’ is ever present.) 




Ok, before I go into description on the reds worn here, a caveat:  busy, busy, busy … two handbags, one fancy while the other held ballet-type slippers for when my feet might hurt – women would understand!

As in the above, blogger’s 4th piece, iborun alaari is under a navy blue velvet 5th piece – picking the navy blue handbag – for a December 1998 wedding at Ibadan, Nigeria.



Bride’s sister wears a fifth set made from buba fabrics while her iborun is tied on the iro not just to accentuate but to hold it in place!


The elaborate embroidery on the back of the agbada of the bride’s father is all hand made; ideally, most have the embroidery done by hand but many are turning to machines for faster turnaround as well as for cost.  If you run a palm on the surface of a good hand-embroidered Yoruba agbada, it would feel almost flat with the fabrics.


All Alaari photographs by Biodun Ogunmola, Ibadan, December 1998.

Alaari Ondo/Alaari Egin

A FIFTH piece of brocade to accentuate is used by bride’s mother’s for this Yoruba classic, aso oke Alaari (3 of 3).  The dramatic gele of the bride’s mother is woven in modern style to complement the traditional Ondo Town beautiful alaari worn by bride’s parents.  The thread for the hand embroidery on agbada of bride’s father picks one of the colors from the alaari.  You do not need to tell them the colors to use for embroidery as the men always just know what goes with what.

As pointed out in the earlier essay on the classics, red dominates but other colors and patterns tend to vary from area to area. Please check out

http://emotanafricana.com/2011/09/16/yoruba-classic-clothes-3-alaari/  for a better understanding of the differences.

Bride's mother uses brocade as 5th piece

Photo Credit:  Julius, for Serious Matters.  Ibadan, December 2003.






Etu was worn last because at the time of the second daughter’s wedding in December 1998, the weavers got too short a notice to have the “quality thread” needed for all family members; so we went for the Number Three fabrics for the Number Two Child!  Parents can use any one of the three, or may even choose any of the modern vibrant colored and synthetic thread aso oke.  

My wish?  That we resist those bottom-of-the-ladder plastic-product synthetics by the Chinese and audaciously stamped with copyrights on patterns from ages long past!  If they were copied properly and are pretty, I probably would not be turned off but they scream u-g-l-y from a distance.

[All Etu photographs by Biodun Ogunmola, Ibadan, December 2004.]

LATEST UPDATE:  May 30, 2013.

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4 Comments on “Yoruba classic clothes at weddings: Sanyan, Etu & Alaari – Tola Adenle”

  1. emotan77 Says:

    A Conversation From my Mail-Box:

    March 8

    to me, info

    Dear Mrs. Adenle,

    Hope you have been doing well. I have always enjoyed reading your blogs and your online archives. I have sent you an email before about aso oke and I will need more advise from you, ma. My sister just start selling aso oke in Abeokuta, Ogun State, and she has been purchasing from Oje. However, she needs to know to recognize the best oso oke weavers, so, she can take special orders from her customers. How can she go about knowing which weaver to trust and what techniques she can use? She wants to start drawing desings and giving them the weavers the desgins, for production. In a nutshell, she wants to stop purchasing the ready made ones and have options for special production, because most of her customes always have special purchases.

    I am looking forward to hearing back from you,

    Thank you very much ma,


    Tola Adenle tolaadenle@emotanafricana.com
    Mar 13 (

    to Seidat

    Dear Mrs. A.
    Pardon the delay. Got back Sunday night but just got a renewed flash. Will write by Saturday. 87 mails in this box which I last checked Saturday a.m. before lvg the States.

    Mar 13 (2 days ago)

    to me

    Thanks, for your reply, ma. I totally understand, I will wait patiently for the answer.
    Take care,

    Dear Mrs. A.

    Thanks for your mail. Pardon whatever inadequacy this mail may pose but the requirements from me are a bit difficult although I’m appreciative of the high regard you have for what you believe is my knowledge of Yoruba Aso Oke. I will hold nothing back that I know can be of help to you and your Sis.

    There are two main weaving areas: Iseyin and Ilorin although there are many weaving cooperatives in Lagos directed mainly by business-women who sell mostly to people who contract them for large numbers and with specific designs.

    1. I’ve never been to Ilorin to purchase although it’s a town I’ve visited quite a few times. Trust is a difficult thing and can only be built, I blv, after contacts. The only person I’ve dealt with who contracts weavers and then takes his stock to the two Ojes is Alhaji Alarape at Iseyin. If your Sis wants to design and give him, he would oblige. To me, he’s a trustworthy man who knows our clothes very well; he’s not taken with all the razzmatazz of modern designs, though! At the Garage area, ask of him and you will be directed to his house. It’s up the road from a major blacksmith place. For pricing, show design and he will often let you see thread colors avlbl and you can also purchase threads.Once your Sis has all costs factored in, deciding on selling prices would be her choice.your sis has all costs,

    2. He has woven designs and thread colors of our choice for just five of us and he’s quite reasonable.

    3. I have lost his telephone number but the trick is NOT to travel to iseyin on any of the Oje market days as he may not be around.

    I’ve taken the liberty of posting your mail in the comments box to help others who may be interested as I really am too pressed for time. Please use the ‘comments’ box for any response.

    I will not be able to communicate further on this matter.




  2. Layi Says:

    Mrs Adenle,

    This Aso Oke thing is very beautiful. Is this for advertistment or what?



    • emotan77 Says:

      Dear Doctor,

      Many thanks. I know they are but wouldn’t it be great if I learn to tie gele well OR in the alternative, avail myself of the services of women who have brought up a mini industry “helping” – for fees, of course around event centers these days?

      Sincere regards,




  1. 6 Quintessential Traditional Yoruba Garments – Aisha's Digital Publishing - January 7, 2019

    […] valued cloth hand-woven by Yoruba men for centuries. There are three types of ashoke: Sanyan, Alaari, and […]


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