Kente is the most famous and celebrated of all the textiles used in Ghana. It is a colourful Ghanaian traditional fabric, which is worn mostly on important occasions and celebrations. The word “Kente,” which means basket, comes from the Akan or Ashanti dialect.
Akans also refer to Kente as “nwentoma,” which means woven cloth. The origin of Kente is grounded in both legend and history. According to Ashanti legend, two young men, Ota Karaban and Kwaku Ameyaw, learned the art of weaving by observing a spider weaving its web. One night, the two went out into the forest to check their traps and were amazed by a beautiful spider’s web whose many unique designs sparkled in the moonlight. The spider, named Ananse, offered to show the men how to weave such designs in exchange for a few favours. After completing the favours and learning how to weave the designs with a single thread, the men returned home to Bonwire (town in the Asante region of Ghana where Kente weaving originated), where their discovery was soon reported to Asantehene Osei Tutu, first ruler of the Asante kingdom. The Asantehene adopted their creation, named Kente, as a royal cloth reserved for special occasions, and Bonwire became the leading Kente weaving centre for the Asantehene and his court.
Historically, the origin of Kente weaving can be traced to the traditions of the ancient West African kingdoms between 300 A.D and 1600 A.D. Some historians are of the view that Kente is a development of various weaving traditions that existed around the 17th century. Nevertheless, while the Kente cloth may have its origin from around the 11th century of West African weaving traditions, the art of Kente weaving was developed earlier in Africa. In some parts of Africa, archaeological excavations have revealed weaving instruments like spindles whores and loom, weights in early Moroe Empire.
Although similar to many other kinds of West African weaving in its basic design, Kente cloth is unique in its intricacy and perfection, as well as the wide variety of colours used in the patterns. However, what is perhaps most unique, and most important for understanding the Ashanti people’s use of this cloth, are the proverbs and stories attached to individual designs.
Patterns are not only categorized by their association with a specific Ashanti proverb, they also have multiple meanings. The proverb “Dea emmaa da eno ne dea yennhunu na yennte bi da” (Figure A) of the emaa da (novelty) print, for example, symbolizes knowledge, creativity, novelty, and innovation. Prints may also have an anecdotal background. The Oyokoman na gya da mu (crisis in the Okoyo nation; Figure B) print, for example, symbolizes internal conflicts, the need for unity in diversity, and reconciliation.
Kente cloth is usually worn for ceremonies, festivals, and other sacred occasions. It is also given as a gift for weddings, child naming ceremonies, graduations, and other special events. Women wear the cloth in 2 pieces - 1 piece about 2 yards long and 45 inches wide wrapped round the waist to form a floor-length skirt worn over a blouse. The other Kente piece is either hung loosely over the arm or used as a shawl or stole. Men wear the cloth in much the same way as the 'Toga' was worn by the ancient Greeks, and it would seem these ancient people must have been in contact centuries ago.
Kente is woven on a horizontal double huddle loom, which is fixed into a wooding frame of a very simple construction and easy portage. At the end of the loom, fixed into the frame, sits the weaver whose toes paddle in alternating succession the two ropes which operate the huddles. The warp threads are attached to a smooth, cylindrical wooden beam around which the woven cloth is wound to be later unwound and cut into the desire lengths. From the cylindrical beam, the threads pass through a reed, better called the beater, since it is used to beat the lateral thread from the weft into a smooth, even, texture. The need or beater is a rectangular frame with a large number of vertical slates made from thin ribs of bamboo, raffia or palm frond.
As each huddle is pulled down by the left or right foot, a long oval gap is created through which the weft shuttle is deftly passed. After each passage of the weft, the beater is used for pressing the new weft against the ones below it.
Modern use of Kente
The period of modernization in Ghana during the 20th century brought tremendous change to the fashion industry. The production of Kente cloth was expanded to every corner of the country. The youth were eager to use the Kente cloth in producing different types of products and began using cheaper source materials that would reduce the cost of the Kente cloth, which was still often seen as an expensive woven cloth worn only by the affluent. Costumers began searching for fashion designers that could supply them with their own choice of designs and products that would be exceptional and unique, as well as affordable. It is now being used throughout the world in amazingly imaginative ways. Currently, Kente is seen often in Ghanaian traditional weddings, worn by some with a connection to Africa during graduation ceremonies, and is gradually being used more often in everyday contemporary clothing and accessories.
Contemporary Kente styles
The contemporary fashion world in Ghana has adopted the Kente style in many unique patterns and cuts. Below are a number of examples.
In a world driven by globalisation, business and development, it is good to see countries embracing their cultural heritage. This is even better when the younger generation adopts patterns and cloths of centuries ago to create fashion statements that speak to their history.
Kente remains a distinctive and colourful reminder of Ghana’s proud cultural heritage!
Ghana National Cloth – Kente (Web log post). Retrieved February 20, 2018, from http://www.ghanareview.com/directory/kente.html.
Achberger, J. Kente: Not Just Any Old Cloth (Web log post). Retrieved February 20, 2018 from http://ultimatehistoryproject.com/kente-cloth-and-the-history-of-the-ashanti-people.html.
Bonwire Kente Weaving Village (Web log post). Retrieved February from http://touringghana.com/bonwire-kente-weaving-village/.
Doku, R. O. (2014, February 18). Kente: The history of Ghanaian fashion, and why its exploding worldwide (Web log post).Retrieved February 20, 2018 from http://www.africandynamo.com/2014/02/kente-history-of-ghanaian-fashion-and.html.