What is Kente Cloth?
The continent of Africa is known for her several rich and colorful elements of culture including music, art, food and textiles. And one of her most amazing textiles is the kente cloth, which is also one of the most intricate fabrics to weave in the world.
Kente cloth is native to the Ewe and Ashanti people of Ghana, with origins dating back to around the 12th century, but its patterns are still worn and enjoyed all over the world. The unmistakable blends of colored threads woven together into beautiful patterns is the hallmark of kente cloth.
The word “kente” means “basket” in the Akan dialect of the Ashanti tribe, and has grown to be the designated name of the cloth which the locals themselves know as “nwentoma” or “woven cloth.”
A Royal Cloth
Each pattern and color on a kente cloth has a unique connotation conveying some social, political, ethical, historical, philosophical, traditional or religious undertones. There is a rich history behind each weave. In the time past, the cloth was worn only by royalty and for very special occasions.
The Ashantis tell a tale of how two young farmers, Ota Karaban and Kwaku Ameyaw, on a hunting trip were inspired by the weaving skill of Anansi, a Ghanaian mythical spider character, as he spun his webs. He taught them the skill in exchange for their performance of certain tasks.
They returned home and wove cloth that was presented to Asantehene Osei Tutu, the first ruler of the Ashanti Kingdom, who adopted it as a royal cloth, to be worn only at special ceremonies.
17 Weave Patterns and Meanings
There are more than 350 patterns used in kente weaving. These patterns are formed by unique methods of intertwining the threads of various colors. Here are some of the more popular kente motifs and their interpretations.
Name of Pattern
Obi nkye obi kwan mu si
To err is human.
Forgiveness, concialiation, tolerance, patience, fairness
Sooner or later, one will stray into another’s path. To err is human, thus we must seek conciliation when offended, as we may be the ones asking forgiveness tomorrow.
Oyokoman na gya da mu
Crisis in the Oyoko nation.
Warning against internal conflict and strife, need for unity in diversity, reconciliation
Commemorative of the civil war, subsequent to the death of Osei Tutu, between two factions of Oyoko royalty.
Sika fre mogya
Money attracts blood relations.
Familial relationship, responsibility, sharing, hard work
Wealth strengthens family bonds. And when one succeeds, one is obliged to share this success with loved ones.
Progress, renewal, development, warmth, vitality, energy
The Progress Party that ruled Ghana between 1969 and 1972 used this symbol as its party logo.
Hope, high expectation, dependence on God, power of the people
The state belongs not to the king but to the people. The stars depict the people, while the moon is the king. Kings come and go, but the people remain.
Knowledge, harmony, unity in diversity
Commemorative of the Achimota School and College founded in 1927. It represents the school’s logo – the black and white keys of a piano. One can make melody on either set of keys, but one can only create harmony by playing the white and black keys together.
Motherliness, tenderness, parental care and discipline
When the hen steps on the feet of her chicks, she does not mean to kill them. Parental admonition is not intended to harm, but to correct the child. The good parent feeds the children not only with food, but with love, warmth, care and tender affection.
All motifs are used up.
Royalty, elegance, creativity, ingenuity, wealth, excellence, perfection, superior craftsmanship
The elders say that the original designer of this cloth, in an attempt to impress the Asantehene, decided to weave a unique cloth. In doing so, he made use of all motifs known to weavers at the time and then remarked that he had exhausted the then repertoire. The resulting cloth became one of the most prestigious of kente cloths.
Obaakofo mmu man
One person does not rule a nation.
Participatory democracy, warning against autocratic rule
Expressive of the Akan governing system based on participatory democracy. The nine squares represent “mpuankron” (nine tufts of hair), the ceremonial haircut of royal functionaries who helped rulers make decisions.
Royalty, wealth, elegance, honorable achievement, spiritual purity
Long before coins and paper notes, gold dust was used as a medium of exchange among the Akan people, and thus symbolized wealth and prosperity. The predominance of intricate patterns in yellow, orange and red visually depicts gold dust.
Abusua ye dom
The extended family is a force.
Strong family bonds, the value of family unity, cooperation, collective work and responsibility,
The extended family is the foundation of Akan society. Family members are collectively responsible for the material and spiritual well-being and protection of every member.
It has not happened before. It has no precedent.
Innovation, uniqueness, perfection, creativity, ingenuity, exceptional achievement
An Ashanti king of old is said to have been so awed by the uniqueness of this pattern that he exclaimed, “Eyi de emaa da,” meaning “This one has no precedent,” and it was thus reserved for his exclusive use.
Toku kra toma
Toku’s soul cloth.
Courageous leadership, heroism, self-sacrifice, spiritual vitality, rebirth
Commemorative of the soul of a warrior queen mother, named Toku, who, though defeated and executed in battle, was greatly revered and remembered for her bravery.
Wofro dua pa a na yepia wo
One who climbs a tree worth climbing earns the help of others.
Aspiration, hope, mutual benefit, sharing, nobility
When one attempts to climb a fruitful tree, he will be pushed up by others as they are assured of enjoying the fruits of his labor. Expressive of the Akan social belief that a worthy individual effort is deserving of communal support, a notion that reinforces the importance of aspiring towards a worthy cause.
Courage, valor, exceptional achievement, inspiring leadership
Commemorative the reign of King Kwaku Dua (1838-1867) who tested the courage of his warriors by ordering them to catch a leopard alive.
Thousands of shields.
Military prowess, strength, bravery, political vigilance, spiritual defense
Referential to the shields used by well-organized armies of thousands of men and women who defended the Ashanti Kingdom with their lives.
God’s eyebrow (the rainbow).
Beauty, grace, divine creativity, uniqueness, good omen
Created in adoration of the beauty and mystery of rainbows. The arrangement of the yarns mimics the visual representation of a rainbow.
Technique of Weaving Kente
Local kente weavers hand-weave the yarns of different colors on a narrow horizontal wooden loom. The artists produce 3-5 inches wide and 5-6 feet long strips of beautifully patterned cloth. Traditionally, men weave the cloth while women sew the strips together to form magnificent ceremonial garments.
Colors and Meanings
The various colors of yarns used in weaving kente cloth convey specific meanings. Here is a color key to help your understanding of the common kente colors.
- Black: spiritual energy, maturity, mourning, funeral and passing rites
- Blue: peace, unity, love, harmony
- Gold/Yellow: wealth, fertility, royalty, affluence, prosperity
- Green: land, vegetation, growth, crops, harvest, spiritual growth and renewal
- Grey: ash, healing and cleansing rituals
- Maroon: mother earth, healing
- Pink: mildness, femininity
- Purple: femininity, womanhood
- Red: death, mourning and funerals
- Silver: peace, joy, the moon
- White: purity, cleansing rites and festivals
Uses and Products
Over time, kente weaving has undergone some changes. Originally, all the threads used to weave the cloth were made from silk. Now, weavers may use threads of cotton, rayon or silk, to make cloths that are affordable to all. Although new patterns with new meanings are emerging, most of the old patterns are still in use.
In our modern day, kente can be worn for special events and ceremonies like weddings, christenings or funerals. Kente cloth is also now used to produce shirts, dresses, ties, shoes, bags, hats, scarfs, sandals, jewelry and other trendy everyday fashion items enjoyed all over the world.
Kente is and has always been, without doubt, an extraordinary cloth. Each color and pattern holds deep meaning. It is indeed a classic cultural item of African heritage and esteem. The intricacy and exquisiteness of the cloth is appreciated all around the world, and people of African ancestry should wear it with great pride. The availability of kente for all in no wise diminishes its undeniable status as a symbol of nobility, cultural erudition and social prestige.