Kente Cloth: Everything You Need to Know About Africa’s Most Iconic Fabric
Love it or hate it, the Kente cloth is without a doubt one of the most universally recognized of all African fabrics.
This fabric has now successfully made the transition from an African attire to a worldwide phenomenon.
From clothing and accessories to home decor, Kente has a fashionable versatility that has transcended the culture and traditions of its origin.
It is now part what we would call a “trend” although it has been around for as ages.
Nonetheless, despite its worldwide popularity and relevance in contemporary fashion, there are a lot of things you may not know about Kente…
In this post, I will walk you through everything you need to know about the Kente fabric, from it’s origin to what each color on the cloth signifies.
So what is Kente Exactly?
Kente is an intricately patterned and brilliantly colored fabric made from the interweaving of silk and cotton cloth strips.
The fabric has beautiful multi-colored patterns and designs made of vibrant and alluring colors.
Kente is very easy to identify, and once you know what the patterns are like, you would be able to spot it anywhere in the world.
The Kente fabric is indigenous to and especially handwoven by the Ashanti people of the land, an ethnic group in western Ghana.
The word itself “Kente” is derived from the Akan word “Kenten” which directly translates to basket in the dialect.
The name stems the resemblance of the patterns on as Kente cloth to that of a wooden basket. Other than Kente, you may also hear an Ashanti person refer to the fabric as “nwentom” which means woven cloth.
Nwentom is, however, a lot less popularly as the rest of the world just knows it to be Kente.
Although anyone can now wear the Kente fabric, it wasn’t always so. The cloth was specially reserved for royalty to be worn only on sacred and essential occasions, an icon of the rich African cultural heritage.
Thankfully, although the Kente remains a symbol of African fashion, you do not have to be royalty to rock a Kente attire.
The Magical Legend of Kente Cloth Origin.
Although the Kente might be a “modern” trend in pop culture, the history of the Kente cloth dates as far back as 400 years ago from the Ashanti people in a Ghanaian village called Bonwire.
Ashanti legend has it that two hunter brothers from the village of Bonwire – KruguAmoaya and WataKraban, during one of their hunting trips came across a great spider web and watched with growing interest and the spider spun on.
Astonished by the beauty and complexity of the web, the hunters decided to recreate the patterns of the spider’s web on returning home.
Thus, what would become the first Kente cloth as we would come to know it was woven using white and black fibers gotten from a raffia tree (palm leaf fibers).
The finished product was taken to the King of the Ashanti Kingdom -who was so impressed with the present that he made it a royal attire for special occasions.
The hunters who wove the cloth were also promoted to serve the King as his exclusive tailor.
Although the Kente cloth was a prerogative of the aristocrats in the society, the cloth was later made available to the public, and soon afterward, lots of weavers took up the unique art of weaving the Kente cloth.
The fabric was majorly woven in Akan lands like the Ashanti Kingdom especially in Bonwire, Adanwomase, SakoraWonoo, and Ntonso.
It didn’t take long for other Ghanaian tribes like the Ewe to catch on, and before long, nearly every tribe in the country was rocking the Kente fabric.
However, up till this present day, Bonwire has maintained its position as the most famous center for weaving the Kente cloth.
You should not be surprised if you hear some people refer to Kente as the Ashanti (Asante) Kente. After all, what people could be more deserving of being attributed to the origination of the Kente cloth?
How is Kente Woven?
The original Kente cloth is 100 percent hand woven. The Ashanti people have been weaving Kente since the seventeenth century such that it has become a traditional cultural art of the Kingdom.
No machinery is used in the weaving of the Kente cloth other than a wooden handloom which is also a handmade traditional apparatus specialized for weaving.
The handloom is known as Nsadua Kofi in the Akan dialect. It can be constructed to be mobile or stationary depending on how the weaver intends to use it.
To weave the Kente, the weavers use a technique called strip weaving, a weaving technique which dates back to the 11th century.
Here, the weaver sits inside the boxy frame of the handloom to produce long, narrow interwoven strips which are afterward sewn together, edge to edge, to make the rectangular traditional Kente cloths.
The strip technique enables for a lot of flexibility in the weaving style allowing the weaver to try a range of different scale and composition.
While the weaving process itself is not exactly very difficult, setting up the handloom requires special skills and a lot of experience.
The warp (vertical threads) is kept at a substantially far distance away from the loom itself and barred by big rocks or stones to keep it in place.
As the weaving progresses, the warp gradually moves closer to the handloom until the weaver is satisfied with the length of the Kente cloth. Using a shuttle, the weft (horizontal threads) are crossed or passed through the warp which is separated by heddles (cords) to make the weaving easier.
To make the strips intact, the weaver could use a ‘beater’ to pull the warp and the weft together. Weaving the Kente requires both hands and feet.
Did you know that the Kente cloth is woven based on gender specification? In other words, a Kente cloth constructed for a man will not be the same size with one made for women.
To illustrate, remember Kente is first woven in strips, and the final product is gotten by sewing the various strips together right?
Now the strip for a Kente cloth constructed for men measures approximately 144 inches (360cm) in length and about 3 to 5 inches (10cm) in width.
The female cloth, however, while having a similar width, is remarkably shorter in length than that of the males coming in at just 72 inches (180cm), exactly half of the length for the male cloth.
For the male Kente, the full cloth is approximately twelve feet by six feet and often comprises twenty-four individual strips.
The women’s cloth measures six feet by three to four feet depending on how many strips are sewn together, which is usually between nine to twelve strips.
This difference in size can largely be attributed to how the men and women wear their Kente fabrics.
The men’s fashion is Toga styled with reference to how the men dressed up in ancient Greece.
Here, the Kente cloth is draped around the body such that the right arm and shoulder is exposed while the left half, shoulder and arm are fully covered.
The women’s attire is a made of three pieces of Kente cloth. Two pieces are used as wrappers for the lower and upper body, or it can be wrapped around the waist to form a long skirt worn with a blouse which is sewn in plain material.
The third piece is optional, and it can be used as a baby carrier, a stole or shawl. The influential women in society and queen mothers can choose to wear their Kente Toga style like the men.
There are 3 main kinds of weaving designs – simple, double and triple.
The double weave is more difficult to create than simple weave while the triple weave is the most difficult of all.
On the average, it could take an experienced weaver as much as five hours to weave just one strip of a triple design Kente cloth.
Nevertheless, as a weaver, you can be as creative as you like with how you want your designs to be.
Expectedly, the more complex and intricate the designs are, the more expensive the cloth is likely to be.
More than a Trend – How the Kente Cloth has influenced the modern art of African cloth printing.
Up until the 1960s, every Kente was handwoven using the wooden handloom. However, towards the end of the 60s and the early 70s, mill woven Kente soon became a thing.
Chances are, you have probably seen a fabric with Kente designs that wasn’t even woven.
so what is all this talk about woven Kente fabric?
That brings us to roller printed clothes created in a variety of Kente designs and patterns. Kente is hot in the global market which explains why African wax print manufacturers are jumping on the Kente designs.
There are hundreds of Kente designs, and every one of them is registered and copyrighted for protection. Thus, while designers can not weave those designs, they can replicate it in print.
The African fabrics with Kente designs are printed by machine, and as such there are a lot more affordable than the original Kente cloth.
Beyond the affordability factor, the original hand woven Kente is somewhat too warm and uncomfortably heavy.
It is also considered difficult to tailor into a fashionable attire not to mention the fact that it is rare to obtain and sourcing for it has become increasingly difficult.
All these factors put together makes roller printed fabrics with Kente designs the more readily available “Kente.”
So yes, it is entirely possible you have never seen original Kente before. What you are more likely to see are the mill woven and wax printed Kente fabric.
The Patterns and Designs on Kente
The Kente has distinctive characteristics of repeated geometric patterns composed of various shapes and sizes in rich and vibrant colors.
The warp and weft threads are uniquely interwoven to create over 300 patterns of Kente cloth, and every pattern has its own unique name and meaning.
However, despite the fact that the stripe patterns on the warp are used in identifying a cloth, there is often very little to no correlation between the name of a Kente cloth and the designs on it.
The names of the designs are often attached to essential personalities, social customs, religious and cultural beliefs, historical events of importance and political ideologies.
Some of the names of the patterns include;
– “Niyata” which means “two-edged sword.”
– “OheneAnewa” which means “The king sees everything.”
– “MakoMasoAdeae” which means “my heart’s desire.”
– “Abusua Ye Dom” which means “the extended family is a force.”
– “ObaakofuMmu Man” which means “one person does not rule a nation.”
– “Nkyimkyim” which means “life is not a straight path.”
Then there is also “Fathia Fata Nkrumah” which means “Fathia suits Nkrumah.”
This design was named after the pioneer First Lady of the country, FathiaRitzk Nkrumah, an Egyptian woman who married Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of the newly independent Ghana soon after the country gained independence from Britain in 1957.
The Fathia fata Nkrumah design represents unity, justice, and tolerance.
In deciding a Kente cloth to purchase, the Akan people consider the pattern and colors as much as the name and the meaning behind each cloth.
Every possible pattern on a Kente cloth is divided into four groups; Ahwepan, Topreko, Faprenu, and Asasia.
– The first pattern Ahwepan is just a block of plain weave usually with simple weft stripes, although the weft stripes may be absent in some patterns.
– Topreko, the second Kente pattern features a ‘single weave’ made up of one block of weft-faced Adwiniasa and two blocks of weft-faced Babadua formed by the passing two or three threads under and over groups of six warp threads.
– Faprenu is the double weave. It is created by winding two or three handpicked supplementary weft threads on a bobbin such that the weft threads are crossed back and forth before the insertion of the ground thread.
The double weave is so densely packed such that the warp threads are often completely invisible through the weft.
– To create Asasia, the weaver employs a diagonal arrangement of the weft threads in a unique twill pattern.
The Asasia is a triple weave, and it is the hardest and most intricate of all Kente patterns.
Because of how intricate and complicated the style is, Asasia is often exclusively woven for prestigious members of the Ashanti community.
What is the significance of Kente?
Although the Kente cloth and its uses are now more widespread in modern culture.
The cultural significance and importance of the cloth to the Ghanaian people has never wavered.
Below, I have compiled and reviewed some points that will help you better understand why the Ashanti people and by extension all of Ghana hold the Kente in high esteem.
• A symbol of cultural heritage
The Kente cloth has become a source of ethnic pride for Ghanaians, especially those outside their home country.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see an African American with a Kente academic stole.
In some schools, the African Americans hold a ceremony called the “Donning of the Kente” where graduating students are presented with Kente stoles to go with their graduation robes.
• A symbol of prestige
The Kente cloth is a very luxurious and expensive fabric – I’m not talking about the wax print fabrics here.
The original hand woven Kente material is not as readily available nor affordable as the machine printed wax fabrics. As such, if you own a Kente cloth, you have something very valuable, and you should treat it as such.
To show its importance, the Kente cloth is often specially reserved for festivals, ceremonies, and other prestigious and sacred events or activities.
You are not going to see someone lounging in the mall draped in a full Kente attire.
• A symbol of royalty
The Kente cloth is still worn as a sacred cloth by royalty in the Ashanti kingdom. As a matter of fact, the weaving of the Kente was considered an exclusive prerogative of the Asante king and the aristocrats in the community.
It was a special regalia of the Royals created to show off their wealth and sophistication. The weaving of Kente fabric was highly controlled by the community leaders for over 200 years until towards the end of the 19th century when the Kente cloth became more easily accessible to be purchased by the few who could afford the price.
• A symbol of hope and Pan Africanism
The Kente is a symbol of hope, promise, and determination for the people of Ghana.
However, the processes through which it came to represent these values were well planned.
Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, wore Kente fabrics to a number of important public events all through his time in the office in a bid to make Kente an icon of a shared African heritage.
For example, after his party had won the presidential elections in 1957, Nkrumah who had just been recently released from prison wore a Kente pattern named “Mmeeda” which means “something that has not happened before.”
He also wore the Kente pattern “AdwiniAsa” meaning “I have done my best” while announcing the nation’s independence from the British colony in March 1957, the first country from Sub Saharan Africa to regain its independence.
In 1958 and 1960, during an official visit to the United States in the capacity of the President of the Ghanaian republic, Nkrumah and his entourage of Ghanaian dignitaries were all adorned in beautifully patterned Kente cloths.
Before his visit was over, Nkrumah and the Kente made appearances in some of the top publications of that time including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Life and Ebony magazines.
• A symbol of honor
The Kente cloth can also be used to honor people or occasions. For instance, in1961 when Queen Elizabeth, the Queen of England visited Ghana, a Kente pattern called “Queen comes to Ghana” was specially created to commemorate her visit.
In July 2009, when the then President of the United States visited Ghana, he got a Kente cloth as well.
The “Fathia Fata Nkrumah” pattern which I mentioned earlier was created as a way of showing support for the marriage between Egyptian born FathiaRitzk and then President, Kwame Nkrumah.
A new design can also be created and named after a member of the society to honour their good deeds.
Color With Meaning: What do Kente colours signify?
Kente patterns are composed of several rich colours, and each colour has a symbolic meaning. Keep reading to find out more about each colour in Kente.
– Yellow is associated with egg yolk, and it represents holiness, preciousness, royalty, wealth and beauty
– Green is associated with plants, and it represents growth, fertility, harvesting, renewal and good health.
– Red is associated with blood, and it represents political and spiritual beliefs, sacrifice and bloodshed
– Blue is associated with the sky, and it represents harmony,peace, holiness, good fortune, and love.
– Pink/Purple is associated with the feminine essence and aspects of life. It represents tenderness, happiness, tranquillity, and sweetness.
– Maroon is associated with the colour of mother earth, and it represents protection and healing.
– Gold is associated with precious metal – gold, and it represents wealth, royalty, prestige and spiritual purity.
– Silver is associated with the moon, and it represents joy, purity, and serenity.
– White is associated with egg white and white clay, and it represents healing, purity, and sanctification,
– Grey is associated with ashes, and it represents spiritual cleansing and healing.
– Black is associated with aging, and it represents strength, increased spiritual energy, and maturation.
My final thoughts.
Since its re-emergence in the 60s, Kente has remained the most iconic African fabric in Ghana and perhaps in the entire African continent.
Although Kente is still majorly worn by the local people as clothes, the uses of Kente transcends being used as apparels.
It can be used as interior decoration, crafted into jewelry like bracelets and earrings, accessories like headbands, scrunchies, and hats.
Kente handbags, purses, backpacks, and shoes are also very popular products in the market.
Essentially, Kente has entered the contemporary world of fashion in a variety of forms, and it looks like it will be there for sometime.
Nevertheless, despite its importance on the global stage, the Kente cloth will always hold the most significance to the Ashanti people of Ghana.