Yoruba and Sericulture: Yoruba classic clothes and textiles – Tola Adenle


Herewith the Yoruba sericulture re-presentation.  It’s edited and the pictures are cleaned up, and also included in this essay where it belongs alongside the old – I’m assuming – Osolo, “iborun/shawl” of the Mississippi State University archival Sanyan.

I know you will enjoy it for different reasons: the Yoruba, hopefully, for historical pride even though the modern cannot hold up a search light to this past, and others, for knowledge and enjoyment.

Sincere thanks for keeping up hanging on at my blog, and if you are new, I hope you’ll tune in from time to time.  

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(2)  The exchanges of mails between an avid reader & contributor to this blog – Tao – on how to get contribution from perhaps my most “Ancient”, to borrow his words [see below] – thankfully – did not come a moment too soon.

My step-mother, Mama Julie Adamolekun joined the Saints Triumphant at 12:15 a.m. on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.  She was 92 years old and left several family members – principal among whom are her four children who are my brothers and sisters,  Professor Ladipo Adamolekun, Ronke Olugbemigun, Dr. Oluwole Adamolekun & Felicia Adetujoye, ten grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

I acknowledge her very invaluable, albeit seemingly small, contribution to the sericulture findings because it helps to link what happened to sericulture in a tiny part of Yorubaland to the extinction of the trade in the region AND, perhaps, the country.

May her soul rest in perfect peace.

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TOLA, FRIDAY, JUNE 21, 2013.


My first essay on this subject was on March 24 which, along with every material I’ve collected on Yoruba and sericulture, have now been combined here to form one essay.

The second part of this essay will be the Akinkoye Collections, male & female clothing items.

This temporary final effort – I plan to continue to learn more and acquire more photographs – even though contemplated, was not conceptualized to search this wide.  This breath and depth came about as a result of a reader’s mail.

I had been working on the Yoruba clothes for quite a while, and getting photographs taken with the intention of one day having the photographs and whatever clothes and other Yoruba artifacts I can afford to collect housed in a collection in whatever form. A coffee-table type book has also been suggested by a sibling.

Lacking scholarship, I did not have any fancy ideas of going into the research of Yoruba clothes, textiles, etcetera but Tao’s first mail produced a Damascene jolt!  His unedited mails are done in blue, including generous use of capital letters, a fact understood and appreciated by me, a trained typist; learner-typists do capitalize a lot to save the humdrum task of shifting, and I think it fit and proper to leave his style intact as portions he wants noted are shown that way!

Your July 2011 archival on Yoruba aso oke in  SANYAN OR  SANMANYAN (Oyo) and ALAARI is  interesting that you found it interesting. Are you aware of the fact that Yoruba textile technology is one of the reasons why the people are credited with the highest URBAN CIVILISATION in Africa South of the Sahara?

Silk came to the Europeans from the east (China and Japan) but the Yoruba also INDEPENDENTLY manufactured their SANYAN/ALARI/ETU. I am told, from yarn obtained from the silkworm at a lower degree of fineness, the process of SERICULTURE … long before the now civilised European. 

The Chinese and Japanese never let anyone forget this small point but we, and all that is African underplay the importance and relevance for today and the future of our contributions to human knowledge. our achievements in antiquity. For example, when you talk of SILK, many are ignorant of our contribution; many don’t even know that the three principal Yoruba highwear were originally silk … SANYAN/ALAARI and ETU…tao


Silkworms feasting on mulberry leaves.

Silkworm cocoons

Photographs:   Dr. T. Ombrello, Union County College, Cranford, New Jersey.


It was a challenge I took up almost immediately.  Although my area of interest had been solely in gathering photographs of aso oke  and samples only when possible, especially old ones, the idea of going a little deeper as the reader suggested intrigued though intimidated me!  Luckily, I was traveling to Akure for a number of days about the same time, and seized the opportunity to talk to my step-mother who is in her 90s. 

Tao’s plea of translated old relations gave me a sense of urgency, and as soon as I got to Akure, Mama was high on my list of people to see.  Below is my note to him after I had visited and spoken to Mama:

“I had a little chat with Mama – in our dialect, of course, but here’s it in Yoruba and English.

Mama, ‘bo le ti ma nri owu ti o ma nwa ni ita kokoro kan bayi ni atijo?  Se oko wa ni? [Mama,where did you get those cotton-like material outside some insects when we were young?  Was it on our farm?]

A, a! awon agbegilodo ko je ki nwon gberi mo tori nwon ati rin igi nwon ni kekere ti ko je ki nwon r’aiye jade mo.  Ti nwon ba ma ri nisiyi, enia ma ni lati de Ogbese! [Ah, the logging trucks do not allow the trees where the insects made their homes to grow big.  If they would be found now, that would be near Ogbese.]

Iju’s side of Ogbese – as distinct from Ogbese Town – is real unfarmed forest.

A little explanation is in order here:Ogbese that Mama referred to, though between Akure and Owo eastwards, shares a boundary with Iju which is westward between Akure and Ikere towards Ado. Iju people who would have farms that far – about seven miles – are rare and the area generally remains egan, that is jungle even though the land-owners are known to all the town’s original indigenes.

I also decided to go on the web, and a big surprise from the web searches was a confirmation of what Mama Julie Adamolekun had told me about silk worm habitat, and their decimation by the logging business, AND, perhaps, an idea of what led to the destruction of sericulture in the area, and – possibly in the whole of the Yoruba Southwest. 



“Several species of silkmoths are involved in this form of sericulture. They belong to the genera Anaphe and Epanaphe (Gaede 1928). Some entomologists consider these genera to belong to the family Thaumetopoeidae (Pinhey 1979), the processionary caterpillars, but others consider that group to be a subfamily (Thaumetopoeinae) of Notodontidae) 

The caterpillars construct communal bagnests and these are the source of the silk. They have been greatly over-exploited in the 20th century, which coupled with deforestation, resulted in this type of sericulture becoming a thing of the past.   Today, the silk is substituted by kugu, which is cotton that has been dyed to resemble the wild silk. Garments made of the prestigious silk (and now the brown-dyed cotton) have great ceremonial significance in Yoruba culture, and the pieces are worn primarily on special occasions such as weddings, funerals, etc. Collectors seeking genuine sanyan silk must obtain vintage (pre-1970) or antique pieces, which are occasionally offered on the internet. Some of the foodplants commonly cited for the caterpillars include wild coffee (Bridelia micrantha), tamarind (Tamarindus indica), and obeche (Triplochiton scleroxylon). The obeche is one of the most important timber trees in West Africa.

You can read more through the following link:


[Mississippi State University Entomological Museum] Another MSU reference I found are these two photographs of the same old piece of this beautiful silk fabric.  On the left is the finest (close-up) photograph of the sanyan while the second picture shows how the cloth looks.



“… Silk production may be more feasible in conjunction enterprises in West Africa where traditional demand was strong but local supplies have recently declined due to deforestation …

[Forest Entomology in East Africa: Forest Insects of Tanzania, Chapter 9. by Hans G. Schabel]


 Picture 1 of the Ondo Sanyaniborun” – shawl – from the Mississippi State University Archive

ipele close upPicture 2 of same Ondo aso oke iborun – Mississippi State University Archive 

Description: An ipele/iborun (the Yoruba word for shawl) of sanyan silk (Anaphe sp. Or Epanaphe sp., Notodontidae) from the town of Ondo (in Ondo State), Nigeria, made circa 1900.  Purchased in April 2009 from Duncan Clarke, an authority on African textiles, who said it has an unusual pattern.

Production Location: Nigeria

Measurement:     [Not stated]


sanyan from Bida

Silk agbada purchased at Bida in 1981

This Agbada was bought at Bida Open Market in 1981.  It is woven with silk.  The Nupe (Tapa) of Central Nigeria also have aso oke but like the Yoruba, silk is no longer locally produced but is imported as threads from abroad.  Age of this silk Sanyan was dated to the 1930s.


And here is the classic Sanyan BASIC pattern.  Generally, it does not have variations in color beyond these two although weaves do differ.  See two different ones below, AND check out a real classic Sanyan from Yoruba Sericulture past from – where else – Ondo!  It’s a peek into the Akinkoye Collection which can be seen in a posting of its own.  The osolo  (shawl) way down below is also from that collection.


Photo Credit:  Depo Adenle, May 1, 2007.


Photo:  May 1998


Photo credit:  Biodun Ogunmola, December 1998.


Photo Credit:  Depo Adenle, 2011.

This photograph started it all!  It was not easy finding models to pose without being paid and one Sunday after service in 2011, my Significant Other took this to stop my worries of when and where I’ll get photographs of the Aso Oke and other Yoruba clothes I had in mind and had just started writing on for this blog.  

Naturally, I was not crazy about the outcome but it was the only solution.  And considering the fact that we have quite a wide collection of photographs of the family in various Aso Oke over the years, it appeared the easiest solution.

Aso Oke textiles used for all clothes in the three pictures above are Sanyan with two different weaves.

Compared with the one at Mississippi State University Archives from Ondo which dates to the turn of the last century, the older one is more dramatic with that dash of slight blue color and thinner lines which indicate a lot of work at the laying out of the thread before weaving begins.



Basic Alaari design.  Photo Credit:  Depo Adenle, May 1, 2007.

As is apparent from various Alaari designs and even other Aso Oke, the Egin (Ondo indigenes) seem the most creative with colors in Yoruba  textile technology.

Here is one basic, and two Ondo variants:

WEDDINGSalaariDADDYPhoto Credit:  Biodun Ogunmola, December 1998.

Bride's mother uses brocade as 5th piece

Ondo Variant

Photo Credit:  Julius, December 2003.

Another Ondo Variant worn for landmark birthday.


Photo Credit: Deji Araromi, April 2006.


Etu or Olowu Dudu

As for Etu/Olowu Dudu, the weave is generally constant with no colors introduced although in times past, Etu was introduced as strips between strips of other colors to make the final outcome colorful but this would mostly be from the 1940s upwards.  Here is classic Etu.  

None of the classics above with the exception of the one from the MSU Archive and the Bida purchase is silk.




The piece from the Mississippi State U Archive was probably – I am not really sure – a male “shawl” which the Ondo people call Osolo.  At Ondo gatherings that call for men to be formally dressed, this ipele/iborun – osolo – can be found draped around males’ agbada in the neck area.

Below is the same type of clothing piece – an osolo – woven in silk and is dated at over 50 years; it’s from the Akinkoye Collections (Male)  The couple is not sure.


A male Osolo – iborun/ipele (“shawl”) from the Akinkoye Collections.

Photography:  Depo Adenle, April 6, 2013

As a result of the find on sericulture from the web, I published the 1st part of this essay on March 24 – now included here. The Ondo Town silk aso oke Sanyan – above – from the MSU museum is the gem of the find.

Then Tao later wrote to ask:  Would you be able to recall and set down in some fine weave, the process of “silk thru the worms and vertical looms” for my grandchildren who may never see the beautiful articles and photographs of the colonial days of  NIGERIA magazine”!!!

I knew I would be stepping into area that I knew nothing about.  Even my memories of what I saw older women do way back are now very vague. An older sister born in 1930 actually apprenticed to a weaver and qualified  but whatever she was doing at the loom at our family home with the mastery in 1953/54 when I was in the first and second year of elementary school, are now very vague memories.

I wrote back:

“Meanwhile, pls check out the others under Yoruba:  History…  I’ve even appealed
for readers’ contributions, incl. pictures. My mother and others used to produce
silk thru the worms and there was a vertical loom in our home like quite a few homes
at Iju of my childhood.

Unfortunately, I cannot set down ANY weave because the loom went down in
1954 or thereabout when I was 8. I do, however, recall the name
egbon’hu egigun or something like that, egbon ‘wu (owu) egigun being the
cocooned insects (we used to collect from a far away farm and would take home
for the mamas to separate from a cover that resembled a plant seed with a light
brownish diaphanous sheathing – sort of.  I also can remember the spinning with a
wooden spool – sort of (common for me when I’m on v. shaky ground!) to turn the
bits and pieces into a continuous string which was then wound up and down a loom
that had a dug-out for the women’s feet.

They used the same method for the cotton balls that were woven into strips.

The awe at the turning of those insect covers and basket-full of cotton into cloths
must be why I’ve adored aso oke all my life.  If you check out the “Yoruba aso oke:
for every age in every age” … I think you’ll agree.

I need photographs of aso oke, especially the old ones.  I would greatly appreciate
donations of photos.”


His earlier letter, however, kept ringing in my ears:

Tao’s revelation that he had –

“ procrastinated and now all my good sources in Abeokuta and Ilesa are no more. Therefore be advised to squeeze as much out of your ancients. Won’t be easy but you have the edge of your professional skills to lean on and I will be happy for us and whatever you get to confirm or revise my silk story. In fact until very recently I thought that only SANYAN is made from silkworm caterpillar but then was told that both alaari and etu are also silk-based. As I trouble you so can you your friends to widen the search and confirmation process….best luck and thank you. Bless the old ones also.

Must ask though, IS THE ETU NOT NUMBER 1 AS ASO AGBA WHICH PROPERLY IT IS NOT CORRECT TO OWN OR USE UNTIL YOU ARE FIFTY … the Yoruba patrimony is both male and gerontological … no .”?


I’m no expert in these things but I will attempt to answer some points that he raised that were not responded to in my correspondences – to the best of my ability here:

Of course like most Yoruba, I know Ife as Ground Zero for Creation Day, and Nigerians, be they Christians, Muslims and believers of  Yoruba deities all believe this, in varying degrees. I do not however know why Sanyan is Number 1, and have nowhere to check it out, but tradition, through oral history is strong, and Yoruba who were born before the turn of the last Century held it to be so and passed it on, and so we hold it to be true.


Etu – the indigo color classic is Number Two while Alaari, the red, is Number Three.


 Although I knew the order of “seniority” and so did my Significant Other who comes from a very traditional Yoruba family as the son of an Oba, when two daughters got married in 1998, I still checked with our Alaso oke weaver so that we would have the cloths in correct order.  Alhaji Alarape, one of Iseyin’s largest dealers in aso oke, wondered why I would ask him when “Baba was around and  knows everything!” [His words.]


Who, Where, What & When of Aso Oke?

Whether a person should not wear a particular textile – etu, specifically, before turning fifty, however, is unknown to me as I heard it first from my correspondent. 

For information, parents can wear the classics in any order they like; they can even wear the modern ones that come in dramatic color combinations and weaves.

Everywhere I’ve checked, including the web, Yoruba cloths seemed, in the past, to be decided by status because the expensive cloths like the three classics:  Sanyan, Etu & Alaari were originally worn by royalty and people of means.  Even with cotton, the weaving of genuine aso oke – not the cheap, awful Chinese imitations made from tough synthetic fibers these days, is a time-consuming process.  

Aso Oke are worn for any occasion considered formal/big by Yoruba and this is evident in the various examples from:


naming ceremonies; formal portraits; graduation ceremonies; milestone birthdays, weddings, etcetera.


I sort of hit pay dirt on Easter Sunday when a friend wore a very very old SILK SANYAN to church.  As I’m putting finishing touches to the write-up, I am excitedly looking forward to photographing the unusual Sanyan tomorrow, Saturday, April 6.

She inherited a big iro – wrapper – from an old relation.  The cloth is woven with the usual two colors – khaki and white – very close, perhaps not more than 1/8-inch apart.  I’ll make sure I measure it.  She made an iro and gele – head wrap from the big piece and sewed a buba – top – from a regular wide-khaki-portions-with-narrow-white-portions.

The outfit was still incomplete as a Yoruba formal wear for women as we’ve seen in earlier write-ups has four or five pieces: iro, buba, gele, iborun and ipele wrapper, top, head-wrap, shawl and a cummerbund-type fifth which are not that common but are still used. 

My friend chose an Alaari Egin [Ondo Town] as iborun.  Please note that I put Ondo Town as distinguished from simply Ondo as we from the State which takes the name of the town would simply say Ondo while some Ondo people would qualify it and say Ode Ondo, that is, not any nearby town.  What a smashing combination for Sanyan & Alaari!


Above is the combination worn that Memorable 2013 Easter.

Photo Credit:  Depo Adenle, April 6, 2013.



A lot of thanks go to Tao whose mails led me to do this quickly before my own source moved on, and for spurring me to more knowledge on a very favorite subject.

Postscript:  The three strips of Sanyan, Etu & Alaari were photographed at my request by Dr. Adenle when Agbajo Yoruba, a Yoruba cultural group to which I belong was putting together documents, including logo, etcetera back in ’07, and I put the pictures forward, hoping one would be considered for inclusion.  The idea did not  go through.  

They’ve finally found a home.


June 21, 2013.



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9 Comments on “Yoruba and Sericulture: Yoruba classic clothes and textiles – Tola Adenle”

  1. Funmi Aiyegbusi Says:

    I have found this piece very insightful and useful, thank you ma for taking out time to put this together. I am truly proud of my heritage.



  2. emotan77 Says:

    From my tolaadenle@emotanafricana.com mailbox:

    Nle o yeye ria. E ku ise, ilu a mo oore o. Ohun ti e se l’ori awon aso ile Yoruba ati ifiye,ifihan nipa ise iwadi ati ise akose ti awon baba nla wa se saaju opolopo awon yoku ni agbaye ye ko je isiri fun gbogbo omo Oodua. Edumare a je ki o ni asekun o.




    • emotan77 Says:

      First, an idea of the ruffles and flourishes above:

      “Hello, there – then a terminology for “mothers”, personalized.

      Thanks for this on behalf of us all. May your effort on our traditional clothes from our ancestral past that predates many in the world, for knowledge, beauty & glory be a thing of pride for all Yoruba. May the Almighty enable this to have successors, and not be an end, in our continued look at the contributions of our ancestors.


      And my reply


      Unending thanks for your contributions. I still expect photographs from your end; you must have some, I’m sure!

      Sincere regards,



  3. ronke okusanya Says:

    Tola, thank you for this feature on the Yoruba sericulture classics. I also see a need to document this on video for our youths who may never have seen any of those heirlooms in this day of wire aso oke.



    • emotan77 Says:

      Awe Ronke, dear,

      Thanks for this. I’m working on getting some other more distribution-possible avenue so that we can spread the word. It’s been a time- and energy-consuming job, not to mention finances. These things have to be passed on which was why I was very excited at the Mississippi State University Ondo Sanyan photograph. Will do my best.

      I almost fell off the chair laughing at your description of the Chinese fakes: “wire aso oke!

      Sincere Regards,



  4. TAO OTUNLA Says:

    You may wish to tidy and prepare this work for a wider audience and more permanent location. I am ignorant of today’s IT ways but is it possible to transfer this to a WIKIPEDIA-type location on the web?



  5. TAO OTUNLA Says:

    Congratulations on this significant improvement to presentation,commentary and photography on Yoruba sericulture. Sadly much as the current generation of Yoruba are rabid collectors of European educational certificates and diplomas, they have shown much less interest in or inclination to research or original work especially on matters Yoruba, making it difficult for them to appreciate or develop the more sophisticated aspects of life and living.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if your efforts here were supported with more contributions, Scholarly papers/ongoing research findings/personal, recollections/photographs, etc on ancient and modern sericulture in Yorubaland? Please continue this very good and important work.

    Oodua a gbe yin o. Mo kun f’ope



    • emotan77 Says:


      I thank you not only for this very generous comments but also for the part you played in getting me to do it.

      I agree entirely with your comments about the lack of interest or support towards more knowledge through research funding by our so-called rich people. The primitive acquisition of wealth and the display of mostly ill-gotten wealth seems to have dulled/killed our people’s respect for things of value, things that endure.

      Omoluabi, that word that word that is bandied around a lot by politicians in Yorubaland these days, is centered on A ti ngbo – in the simplest of English expression, this is not expected of US; we can do better; we must think of the collective interest, etcetera.

      But you’ve also shown it’s a job for all of us to do in different ways, and I’m just hoping we all have the time to correct the rot being wrought on our land before it’s too late.

      Sincere thanks.



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