Kente is one of the most recognisable fabrics under the African textiles umbrella. Adopted as a key symbol of Afrocentric identity and Pan-Africanism in the 1960s throughout the African diaspora, it was declared Ghana’s national cloth upon attaining independence in 1957. And rightly so, as this royal cloth is deeply intertwined in the history and culture of the Akan ethnic group of West Ghana.
Locally known as Nwentoma, which means woven cloth, this formal regalia displayed the wearer’s wealth, indicated royalty and was worn mainly on special and sacred occasions. Kente is derived from the word ‘Kenten’, which means basket, because of the basket-like appearance the fabric’s weaving exhibits. Hand-woven in the Akan lands, such as Bonwire, each component of the fabric is intentional; steeped in meaning. Although Kente was developed in the 17th Century (AD), weaving has been a long rooted tradition in Africa, dating as far back as 3000BC. So, what led to its creation?
Folklore suggests that the art form was developed by two men from Bonwire in Ghana. Ota Karaban and Kwaku Ameyaw came across Ananse, a popular spider in Asante mythology used to symbolise wisdom and trickery, spinning its web. Fascinated by the process they gathered fibres from a raffia tree to implement the technique that they had witnessed.
Once they improved on the skill, they shared their discovery with chief Nana Bobie. He then conveyed it to the Asantehene (the Ashanti chief) Osei Tutu. Impressed with what he saw, the Asantehene made it a prestigious and royal cloth that would be used for special occasions. Bonwire remains one of the most important Kente weaving centres to date. Men still predominantly practice the craft. Which is a unique attribute as weaving is mostly executed by women in other parts of Africa.
The Historical Account
Historians indicate that Kente cloth is the result of the combination of various weaving traditions that existed in West Africa. Thanks to the vast trade routes, techniques and material – such as silk – were acquired to make the royal cloth. Before the formation of the Ashanti Kingdom, it’s believed that weavers adopted skills from weavers living to the North and West of them; forming their unique style.There is the perspective that the art form was in fact learned from the Ewe people of Ghana. In the Ewe dialect, the cloth is called ‘Kete’ to reflect the process of how it is woven. ‘Ke’ means to open or spread, representing the weft while ‘te’ is to press or tighten reflecting the waft. As they were under the Asante Kingdom rule from the late 18th century, they also wear Kente cloth. However, there’s wasn’t limited to royalty and special occasions. Instead, Ewe Kente was more involved with daily life and thus has a larger array of functions and pattern symbolisms.
The first Akan Kente cloth may have been made from raffia, but it soon evolved into a interwoven cloth made from silk and cotton fabric. One of the earlier accounts of royal silk weaving was in the 1730s that the Asante imported silk from southern Europe through the trans-Saharan caravan trade. They would then unravel the material and proceed to use it as decorative additions to woollen and cotton cloths kente cloths. The Kente cloths made purley from silk were considered the finest and most expensive cloths; thus reserved for royals. From the early decades of the 20th century, artificial fibres such as rayon was introduced making the textile more accessible. Nonetheless, the emphasis on symbolism remains.
Colour & Its Symbolic Meaning.
Initially, the Kente cloth was crafted from the raffia tree’s black and white fibres. However, the Asantehene desired colour so the weavers had to get creative. By shaving off bark from local trees and grinding seeds, the weavers were able to make red, green and yellow dyes. With time, more colours would be incorporated, but the three would remain the traditional colours.
The design effect in many Kente cloths is achieved through the alternation of muted war-striped plain backgrounds and bright coloured pattern blocks. Though visually appealing, each colour utilised carries a specific meaning that can range from blue (peacefulness), green (growth, spiritual renewal) and maroon (healing), to yellow (fertility, beauty) and silver (serenity, purity). You can see a more comprehensive symbolism list here and here.
Over 300 patterns exist and they are all done by hand on a horizontal treadle loom. Weavers use their hands and feet to operate the loom in an innate fashion that is visibly enchanting. To get a more comprehensive understanding of the weaving process in-depth, you can find out more information here and here.
The most expensive and reputable pattern is the ‘Adwene asa’ which means ‘my skills are exhausted’. Created strictly for the Asanti Kings, it combines multiple Kente patterns and can only be made by one master craftsman. Weavers continue to craft new designs, taking inspiration from their environments, political ideas, important chiefs or members of society, religious beliefs, social customs and proverbs. For example, ‘Fathia Fata Nkrumah’ (meaning Nkrumah merit Fathia) was created for Ghana’s first president Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and his wife madam Fathia in 1960.
Then there’s the largest known kente cloth, which Ghana presented to the United Nations in 1960. Measuring about 12 x 20 feet (3.66 x 6.1 m), it is called ‘tikoro nko agyina’, which means, one head does not constitute a council. Other popular patterns include ‘Afa’ (I have taken it), ‘Niata’ (Two-edged sword) and ‘Babadua’ (Strength).
Today, Kente isn’t solely for the royals. A fact that was initially retaliated against through a Kente cloth design called “wonya wo ha a, wonye dehyee” which means “you may be rich, but you are not of a royal descent”. With the cloth widely available, Ashanti weavers now use different terminologies to distinguish where the cloth was made. ‘Nwentoma’ still refers to the woven cloth, while ‘Ntoma’ and ‘Adinkra’ refer to factory-made and cloth stamped with the block-print technique respectively. There are also three categories of the ‘Nwentoma’: Plain weave (Ahwepan), plain weave with simplified weft inlays (Topreko) and double weave technique that conceals the warp threads (Faprenu). Markets you can find Kente cloth in Ghana include Keneshie, AACD African Market and Makola in Accra.
If you’re looking for authentic Kente, a pro-tip is to check the thread consistency. ‘Authentic fabrics are 100 per cent hand-woven, which means the thread will be consistent on both sides; imitation cloth is printed so the opposite side may show a different colour or none at all.’
While the Kente is still adorned for special occasions, version made from rayon and cotton are more commonly used on a daily basis. This includes accessories such as shoes, ties, jewellery, bags and hats, as well as, interior decor accesories. Social demand may have made more accessible, yet, the pattern, design naming and colour significance is retained. Designers have also been known to incorporate the textile in their collections. this year alone, Ghanaian Accessory brand Selina Beb showcased it’s ‘Kente Collection’ at the New Orleans Fashion Week Runway.
Additionally, Lumiere Couture Official’s “Minutae SS19 collection” at AFI_SA Cape Town Fashion Week 2018 fused Kente with plain cotton, beading and sheer leather. Proving that, centuries later, this textile continues to captivate and fascinate its audience. If you’d like more detail on the Kente fabrics, Trip Down Memory Lane makes for an interesting read as well.