Kente cloth is a cloth in brightly patterned geometric strips, that is traditionally woven into strips by the Ashanti people from Ghana. Similar cloth is also woven by Ewe people, with slightly different motifs and colourways.
The two can be distinguished by the exuberance of the colour choice, with the Ewe cloth being in more muted and cool colours patterns whereas the Ashanti version uses bright colours such as reds and yellows.
Mostly cotton is used for everyday cloth. This used to be spun from locally grown cotton, but has gradually been supplanted by imported yarn. To expand the range of colours available, imported silk cloth used to be unravelled and integrated into cloth for the royal households. The first written report of Ashanti weaving was in 1730. Silks and materials were imported by the Asantehene, or king, then unravelled and mixed with the existing cotton so that they could be made up better. Depending on the wealth of the recipient, the mix of silk could be increased or decreased. To a large extent, silk has now been replaced with imported rayon.
The narrow strips are woven on carpentered, fixed, looms with two feet-operated heddles used to separate the warp threads, so that the weft patterns can be woven through. Supplementary weft patterns, where another yarn is introduced within the woven weft, is also common in Kente cloth. When a cloth is fully ornamented cloth with such supplemented patterns, it is called ‘adwinasa’ or ‘my skill is exhausted’. Other designs are also given names: “Liar’s cloth”, “Something that has not happened before”, “I have done my best” (worn by the first president of Ghana during swearing in at independence).
The strip is woven is a long continuous run, which is then cut and joined (selvedge to selvedge) to make a bigger piece. The weaver must therefore have in mind how he expects the final piece to be constructed. Usually, about twenty-three strips are needed to make a cloth of sufficient size for a men’s toga, wrapped around the body and with one end draped over the shoulder. Women wear the main cloth as a wrapper tied at the waist in addition to a loose blouse-style top.
Some interesting facts:
- The colours used in a pattern communicate certain attributes: wealth (gold), vitality (yellow), renewal (green) and spiritual purity (blue).
- Warp threads can be really long: 140 metres is not unusual.
- In one myth about how the Ashanti began to weave, the first weaver learnt how to do so from the trickster spider Anansi, after watching how spiders weave their webs.
- Everyday cotton cloths are usually in blue (dyed from indigo) and white patterns.
- One style of cloth called the asasia could only be woven if authorised by the king himself.
Clarke D (2002). The Art of African Textiles, Thunder Bay Press.
Piction J and Mack J (1989). African Textiles. British Museum.