What is Kente Cloth: Tales of its origin & name.

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African textiles: Kente Patterns

Kente Cloth, with its vibrant colors and bold geometric patterns is one of the most recognizable traditional African textiles. Although it has come to symbolize Ghana, it is also woven in neighboring Ivory Coast and Togo (West Africa). Nowadays, Kente’s distinctive patterns are printed onto various materials destined for numerous uses; from fashion accessories to homeware and anything in between. While its usage increases, there is little known about the cloth itself, its origin and how it came to become so popular. So we picked up some African textiles literature and went back to the source with weaver Gideon Gamado in Ghana to learn more.

Kente cloth is made of narrow woven strips of about 8 or 9 cm that are sewn together lengthways to form a wider cloth. There is no certainty about the exact origin of the cloth and its name. According to the book, African Textiles, the narrow loom was brought in the Seventeenth Century from Gaymann, a location in present day Ivory Coast. Whereas another legend shared from generation to generation and passed to Gideon, makes the cloth an ingenious result of the natural world: Some Friends first observed a spider making its web in a cave and were inspired to do the same with threads; and Kente cloth was born. Some, like Gideon attribute the name Kente to the loom work and how the weaver repeatedly has to open “Ke” and close “te” the threads to make the fabric. To others, the name Kente is linked to a word used by another ethnic group, the Fante, to designate basket.

Even if the origin and name are disputed, there is no doubt about the Kente cloth being deep seated in the weaving traditions of two distinct ethnic groups: the Ashanti (part of the Akan ethnic group present in Ivory Coast), and the Ewe. (Spread across southern Ghana and Togo). You could tell their cloth apart by the motifs and patterns. The Ashanti’s Kente featured vivid geometrical patterns whereas the Ewe’s included figurative motifs.

Initially, the cloth was woven with silk and cotton and reserved for the sole use of the Royal Families, including Chiefs and Queen Mothers. At the time of Ghanaian independence, Kente became a symbol for the pan Africanism championed by its first elected president. It propelled the used of the cloth among African Americans and it is still worn for graduation ceremonies and for celebrations such as Kwanzaa. Back in Ghana, the use of the cloth was no longer reserved for the royal families, as people started to wear it for special occasions, such as weddings or funerals, or simply to go to church as depicted in one of the pictures of the iconic Ghanaian photographer, James Barnor.

picture of two friends by James Barnor
Two friends dressed for a church celebration, Accra, 1970’s James Barnor

As a child growing up in Togo, in the early eighties, I remember seeing the men of my family wearing Kente on some very special occasions. They would proudly wrap a big piece of fabric around their bodies, over one shoulder and then keep everything secured by holding onto one side of the fabric. That is the reason why the Kente cloth worn by the men comes as one single piece of about 12 yards long. In contrast, the womens’ Kente comes in two pieces: one of 4 yards, worn wrapped as a long skirt and a smaller second piece of 2 yards usually turned into as a Head wrap. Nowadays, the material used has also changed. Kente is now almost exclusively made with cotton or with cotton and rayon.

This article is part of an African Textiles series that will be published on a weekly basis. Next Week, In conversation with a Kente Weaver: Gideon Gamado. 

Interview with Gideon Gamado. His woven Kente are on display online @bigdreadkente
Duncan Clarke, Miriam Ali-de-Unzaga, Bernhard Gardi, African Textiles The Karun Thakar Collection (London Prestel, 2015)

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