Kente: The History behind the West African cloth….

Variety of Kente designs

The word “Kente” means basket. It originates from the Akan or Ashanti (a Ghanian tribe) dialect. Akans also refer to Kente as nwentoma, which means woven cloth.

Kente cloth is deeply intertwined with the history of the Ashanti nation. The Ashanti Empire or Confederacy, which is located in what is today known as Ghana, first emerged in West Africa during the seventeenth century. The Ashanti are members of the Akan people who speak the Akan or Ashanti dialect.

A more contemporary styled Kente dresa

Kente is no ordinary cloth and is easily recognisable worldwide. Recently law makers in the United States draped a piece of kente around their shoulders while observing the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

A story of the history of Kente:

A fully woven kente fabric

Although the first kente cloth was made of raffia fibers, Kente cloth, which was associated with Ashanti royalty, was made of silk during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Silk was extremely costly as this fabric was imported into the Ashanti kingdoms through the trans-Saharan trade route, a route that stretched across the Sahara Desert from the West Coast of Africa to the Middle East and from there to Europe and Asia.
This trade route which dated back to at least 300 BC crossed some of the most barren and desolate lands in the world. The dangers of this crossing, even when traders used caravans of camels, were such that any and all goods transported this way came with a hefty price tag.

Ashanti women purchased the silk brought by these caravans but Kente cloth was woven only by men, as woman’s menstrual cycles were thought to interfere with the production of the cloth.

Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, the current King of the Ashanti Kingdom wearing kente

So in 1697, the King of the Ashanti Kingdom, Osei Tutu, selected several weavers from nearby towns and villages to travel to neighbouring Ivory Coast to become experts in the complex art form.
Once they returned to Ghana, they started to weave the beautiful and colourful cloth exclusively for the King because kente was originally made and worn only by the royals.
The weavers started to create their own unique designs, which are now well known worldwide as ‘Ashanti kente’. The Ewe is another ethnic group who also weave kente in Ghana.

Today, the Ashanti royals still wear the sacred cloth usually draped across the shoulders, including traditional black and white designs, for prestigious occasions including: ceremonies, worship, outings, marriages and funerals.

Raw Materials & Preparation:

A weaver creating a traditional black and white kente design on a handloom in Ghana.

The type of raw materials used for weaving include:
• Cotton (grown in the north of Ghana).
• Silk (very expensive and was the traditional thread used).
• Rayon (synthetic fibre).
• Metallic thread (adds shine to cloth).
Usually, the threads are hand spun by villagers where the kente is made as it is cheaper than buying a ready spun cone.

Designing the Kente:

Close up on a designed Kente

The more complicated the design the more expensive it is to purchase. There are three kinds of weaving known locally in this village as simple, double and triple. The latter being the most complicated as the designs can take 4-5 hours for an experienced weaver to make just one strip!
If you prefer you can draw your own design and they can replicate to suit your requirements.

Hidden Meanings:
The kente cloth designs are powerful cultural symbols that represent history and philosophy. Each design has a specific name and significant meaning that reflects cultural values of Ghanaians as well as historical events. You can tell the symbolic meanings from the different designs and colours used.

We hope you have enjoyed reading about kente. So when you wear any one at any moment you will appreciate the work that has gone into preserving the rich culture.

What local material do you know of? Please share with us in the comment section.

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