Kente cloth is the best-known African textile and one of the most admired fabrics in the world. Its dazzling colors and intricate geometric patterns plus its long history have made it popular in this country as a symbol of African pride. Machine-printed imitations, many of them made in China and Korea, are widely available. But true kente cloth was developed in Ghana by the Ashanti people hundreds of years ago. It is woven on a narrow, horizontal loom in strips that are 3 to 5 inches wide and 5 or 6 feet long. Several strips are sewn together to make a cloth.
Uses of kente cloth
Kente was originally worn only by the royal family and high-ranking people in Ashanti society. Today, as even the most intricate patterns are more widely available, many people are able to own handwoven kente cloth. The cloth is valued highly and worn only at the most important social or religious events, somewhat like a tuxedo or fancy ball gown in western society. Men wear one large piece draped around the body like a Roman toga, while women may wear two or three smaller pieces as a stole, a skirt or a shoulder-baring dress.
The elaborate patterns are kente cloth's most distinctive feature. There are more than 300 named designs, each one with variations in color and distribution of motifs. These patterns are created by the weavers, who name them and assign meanings. There is often little connection between the name of the pattern and its appearance; the names commemorate a person or event, or are taken from proverbs. A person with several kente cloths will choose the one to wear to a particular event by the pattern's meaning as much as its appearance. For example, to attend a wedding, a person might choose to wear a cloth in the sika fre mogya pattern. These words are a proverb that means "money attracts blood relations" in the Ashanti language. The implication is that a successful person shares his wealth with his family members--a compliment to the giver of the wedding ceremony.
Examples of Patterns
Here are some other examples of kente patterns:
Toku kra toma means Toku's soul cloth. This pattern commemorates a warrior queen mother named Toku who was killed in battle. The pattern symbolizes courage, leadership and heroism.
Sika futoro, which means gold dust, recalls the past when gold dust was the Ashanti currency. The predominant yellow, orange and red colors in this pattern, plus its tiny scale, mimic the appearance of gold dust. This pattern means, appropriately enough, wealth.
Nyankonton mean's God's eyebrow, and signifies the rainbow. The arrangement of warp threads in this pattern attempts to imitate a rainbow, and the pattern means divine beauty and creativity and is a good omen.
The Adwinasa pattern was formerly worn only by kings. Its name recalls the words uttered by the weaver, who had attempted to create a superlative cloth using every known weaving motif. When he finished, he said, "adwin asa," which means, "all motifs are used up." This cloth is viewed as top quality and symbolizes royalty and excellence.
The colors in kente cloth are also symbolic. Some cloths are woven just in black and white, but most use a variety of colors, which can add nuances to the meaning conveyed by the pattern. Some of these are:
Black--maturity, including spiritual depth acquired as one matures.
Blue--peace, like the sky
Green--planting, growth, renewal
Yellow and gold--royalty and wealth
Red--blood, death, sacrificial rites
Maroon--the earth, healing
Silver--the moon, serenity
Gray--ashes, and therefore cleansing and healing rituals
The word "kente" comes from "kenten," which means basket. Originally, kente cloth was woven with raffia fiber, so it was called kenten ntoma, which means basket cloth. The intricate patterns may also suggest the appearance of a basket.