Like the Nigerian hand-woven Aso-oke, Kente is an ancient textile of Ghana, made of hand-woven cloth, and strips made of silk and cotton. The cloth is mainly weaved by men, but not without some female weavers.
Kente is more than just a cloth. It is an iconic visual representation of the history, philosophy, ethics, religious beliefs, social values, and political heritage of the people of Ghana in West Africa. It is the traditional wear of the Ashanti and Ewe tribes in the modern day Ghana, having its origin traced down to Bonwire town. Bonwire is a town within Ghana’s Ashanti Region.
Historically, Kente is a royal cloth, specifically used by Ahsante royalty and limited to special social and sacred functions. The cloth was believed to be adopted by the first ruler of Ashante kingdom-Asantehene Osei Tutu. The King adopted it from two young men—Ota Karaban and his friend Kwaku Ameyaw, who learnt the art of weaving by observing a spider weaving its web.
The method of making Kente is painstaking. The thread used to weave the material is made out of cotton. The cotton is spun to separate the cotton seed from wool using a spindler. As the spindler turns repeatedly, the cotton thins until all the wool has been spun. The cotton is then cleaned and sorted which is done manually and can be very time-consuming.
Once the cotton is purified, the signature designs and patterns characteristic of Kente are ready to be created. The weaver spreads the wool and processes it through the loom. A loom is a traditional weaving machine which produces a narrow band of cloth about four inches wide.
There are two main strands of kente in Ghana representing the two ethnic groups – the Ashanti and the Ewe. The Ashanti designs tend to be exact and the colours unambiguous, whilst the Ewe kete designs are more subtle and the colour are less vibrant.
There are different kinds of Kente patterns. They vary in complexity with each pattern, block and colors having a name or message attached to each of them (pattern, block, and colour) by the weaver and the cloth often includes adinkra symbols, which represent concepts or sayings. Names given to each pattern are derived from several sources, including proverbs, historical events, important chiefs, queen mothers, and plants. The cloth symbolizes high value.
Below are some of the symbolic meanings attached to the colours on Kente:
- black: maturation, intensified spiritual energy, spirits of ancestors, passing rites, mourning, and funerals
- blue: peacefulness, harmony, and love
- green: vegetation, planting, harvesting, growth, spiritual renewal
- gold: royalty, wealth, high status, glory, spiritual purity
- grey: healing and cleansing rituals; associated with ash
- maroon: the color of mother earth; associated with healing
- pink: assoc. with the female essence of life; a mild, gentle aspect of red
- purple: assoc. with feminine aspects of life; usually worn by women
- red: political and spiritual moods; bloodshed; sacrificial rites and death.
- silver: serenity, purity, joy; associated with the moon
- white: purification, sanctification rites and festive occasions
- yellow: preciousness, royalty, wealth, fertility, beauty
Like the Nigerian Aso-oke, Kente has been modernized and used beyond the Ghanaian royal court as there are now different versions of Kente such as Kente print produced by brands such as Vlisco and Akosombo Textile LTD, and mass-produced Kente pattern typically produced in China for Westerners besides the authentic Kente cloth made by traditional weavers. An American fashion brand Louis Vuitton used a printed and monogrammed version of Kente in their autumn-winter 2021 collection.
Meanwhile, as Kente become more accessible to those outside the royal court of Ghana and become useful in making contemporary wears like jacket, kimonos, and different fashion accessories like, shoes, sandals, bags, belts, etc., it continues to hold its original cultural prestige and associated with wealth, and high social status.
Photo Credit: @pistisgh