The Kente may be IT textile from Ghana, but the Gonja cloth shouldn’t be counted out. In fact, the Kente is considered a derivative of the Gonja; albeit with an infusion of colour. Not to mention, it’s part of the country’s history. Didn’t Kwame Nkrumah declare the independence of Ghana on March 6, 1957 wearing the very fabric? The Gonja cloth is a product of a Ghanaian community, based in the Northern region of the country, by the same name. Known for their exemplary hand weaving skills, they created a strong and sturdy cloth from cotton strips that are approximately four inches wide; which they sewed together.The cotton based fabric is known to make the Batakari and Fugu. Both are elements often spotted and special ceremonies to date. Historically, the Gonja cloth was used to make the dress of choice for Kings in Northern Ghana. Nevertheless, it transitioned into a popular cloth worn by the masses. Additionally, the cloth is also used to make domestic items such as bed sheets, table cloths, wall hangings, pillow covers and curtains.
Granted the terms ‘Fugu’ and ‘Batakari’ are often interchanged and considered to mean the same, however some sources insist that there are differences between the two. For instance, some government sights indicate that the Batakari is made up of a combination of flowing gown and trousers. On the other hand, the Fugu is an all-cotton, hand-woven tunic which is worn like a shirt.
Often found in subdued shades of blue, brown and black, this dense fabric can also be found in other hues. The Upper West Region of the North is known to use cooler colour combinations such as blues and greens with whites and yellows. On the contrary, the Upper East Region leans to warmer colours for their smocks. Primarily, you’ll find oranges and reds used in their designs. Regardless of the colour choice, the cloth is made from 100 per cent cotton.
The fabric follows a distinct production pattern, and can be easily recognised by the patterns, cuts and embroidery used. There are various traditional designs that are designated for certain observances such as weddings, funerals or child-naming ceremonies. In addition, there are designs for informal and leisure-based affairs.
Gonja has the exclusivity factor going for the cloth. Unlike the wax print industry, which has cheaper competition made outside the African continent, Gonja is exclusively produced in Ghana. Because it is expensive to make and difficult to work with, it’s likely that it will remain a luxury fabric.
Another interesting fact about this cloth is that the weavers are largely women. If you’ve noticed the running theme in this series, most textiles see the men take on the weaver role. While it does face competition from second-hand clothing, referred to as “Obroni Wawu” (translated as “the dress of the dead white man”), local authorities have found ways to instil national pride in Ghanaian textiles. For example, large companies have recently implemented the tradition of asking their employees of donning traditional African outfits on Fridays.
While you can get the cloth made in traditional way, which is often heavier than popular kente, many local businesses such as the trendy smock wear Shaaliwud have adapted it to modern demands.
One of the most notable collections to be made using the cloth came from a label known as Raffia. The Gonja is traditionally used to make a smock. However, the brand chose to use it in more modern silhouettes to create items such as crop tops, blazers, and skirts. The brand’s founder and director, Madonna Kendona-Sowah, wanted to dispel the notion that Ankara and Kente were the only high-quality cloths produced in West Africa. According to an article by Okay Africa, ‘Northern-born Ghanaians are vastly underrepresented in Ghana’s burgeoning high-street fashion scene led by designers like Christie Brown, Mina Evans, and Duaba Serwa.’
Since that collection there have been brands such as Threaded Tribes and Gonja Official who have used the fabric. However it’s still not as widespread as the Kente or Ankara fabrics in modern design; which should be a point of interest for designers looking for an intriguing inclusion in 2019.