Kente cloth dates back to the twelfth
century to the country of Ghana in West Africa. Kente cloth was a garment
reserved for the royals (kings and queens) and other important figures in
Ghana's political society till about the 18th century. Kente cloth is
documented to be traditionally woven by the Asante and Ewe tribes who wore them
at ceremonies and other important events. Many photographs taken at a ceremony
or event depict the King wearing Kente and gold jewelry which includes amulets
The pattern on a Kente cloth resembles a
basket, the word Kente is derived from the world basket - "kenten". The first
Kente clothes resembled a basket because they were woven with raffia fibers.
Modern day Kente cloths are made up from materials such as: cotton, silk,
lurex, and rayon. Yarn prior to weaving is dyed in a variety of colors, many of
the common colors include: gold, green, blue, black and red. Traditionally
woven by men, Kente cloth is an example of Africa's visual arts that has complex
symbolic connection to verbal arts - meaning that its graphic decorations have a
direct relation to proverbs, traditional sayings, or historical events -
typically the name of the cloth does not correlate with the design.
"Interpreting" a Kente cloth reminds one of watching someone reading
hieroglyphics - if the interpreter is well versed in the ancient language and
meanings of the depictions the cloth is translatable. Majority of the
depictions for royal or political figures are related to the government and it
is achievements, the primary patrons of the Kente is royalty.
Kente cloth is woven on a horizontal
loom that has between four and seven treadles (treadles help regulate the design
- four produce a simple design, seven or more produce a complex design). The
pieces are woven into narrow strips that are about four inches wide and five to
six feet long. The garments are made custom to fit a male or female, they also
vary in colors and design - the male version of a Kente cloth is one large piece
wrapped similar to a toga and the female versions have individual garment pieces
(i.e.: bodice, skirt). A male's Kente may is made up of approximately 24 strips
sewn together and is between five and eight feet long, and is worn draped over
the left shoulder (a few are draped over the right shoulder). A female's Kente
is made up of 2 garments and each has about 8-12 strips of Kente in it. Some of
the designs on the cloth may be of animals - but common design elements are the
triangle, wedge, hour-glass shapes, circles, lines, etc. Traditionally, the
size, pattern and color are determined by gender, age, marital and social
There are several different types of
Kente including the woven loom-made pieces by the Asantes, those woven in a
factory or those that have the print stamped onto them. Various weaving
techniques include: a plain or straight weave, weft inlay weave which is the
practice of inserting items into the weave, and another technique that hides the
warp or vertical threads. Weft inlays and the hiding of the warp threads are
all weaving techniques that take time and make these pieces more valuable and
expensive, the price tag for a finely made
Kente can range between two and four
thousand dollars. The technique of how the warp threads are laid is also
significant. The laying of a weft thread creates a visual representation of
beliefs, historical events, philosophy, politics, religious thought, or moral
values in the African culture, or individuals "black pride". Each Kente pattern
is unique, and can be identified by its own name and meaning. There are
currently over 300 types of designs. Each Asante king creates his own design
once he takes office, which he chose carefully for he would be forever
remembered by it.
Kente cloth is no longer reserved just
for the royals it is for people of all social status. In the past Kente were
patroned from artisans only by royals, now with the economic prosperity it has
become feasible for the non-royals to express a demand for Kente cloths. In a
small retaliation a Kente was designed and named "wonya wo ha a, wonye dehyee"
meaning "you may be rich, but you are not of a royal descent." The royals wore
this to distinguish them from the non-royals who have adopted wearing Kente in
the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. However an individual may
not decide to make their own design and wear it, royalty must first be offered
the design and if it is declined then it is permissible to wear for a non-noble.
Ghana achieved it is independence from
Britain in 1960, at that time the Kente transitioned from a cloth worn only by
royalty to a cloth of the people being a symbol of national pride. Ordinary
citizens began to buy Kente, majority of which being affordable "factory"
versions, and they wore them for special celebrations. A new trend began and
now it extends from Africa to include the United States which where African
Americans keep this symbol of their cultural identity close to them as an
important symbol to highlight their heritage, and to be worn on days such as
those during Black History month celebrations. African Americans hold close to
them and renew their pride with their motherland by wearing a Kente cloth for
more than just reasons of fashion - it is for inspiration, and a reflection of
the art of their African ancestors from Ghana.
Kente however cloth has not remained
strictly a piece that relates to the people, it also has been involved in
politics. The largest Kente cloth was presented to the United Nations when
Ghana joined this world organization. The cloth measures 12x20 feet and is
named "tikoro nko agyina" which means "one head does constitute a council". The
presentation of the cloth stated that Ghana is now taking its legitimate place
in the new world order. In the 1960s during the Cold War Era, Ghana was one of
the founding members of the Non-Alignment Movement which was a third rail to the
two other world powers of that time - the Soviet Bloc countries and the US led,
The Kente cloth helps Africans and those
of African descent maintain and keep their cultural identity. It is one of the
fewer costumes you would not see one from another culture (i.e.: Swedish)
wearing because everyone recognizes its cultural background. The meaning may
have changed over the years, but it's still the thought that counts and Africans
across the globe identify wearing it to their heritage. Africans across the
globe wear Kente with pride, self inspiration, and to maintain their cultural
Asamoah-Yaw, Ernest. Kente Cloth - Introduction to History. New
Dickerson, Debra J. The End of Blackness. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.
Adler, Peter, Nicholas Barnard. African Majesty. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.,
Sieber, Roy. African Textiles and Decorative Arts. New York: The Museum of
Plumer, Cheryl. African Textiles. Michigan: Michigan State University, 1970.
Idiens, Dale, K.G. Ponting, ed. Textiles of Africa. Bath: The Pasold Research
Reswick, Irmtraud. Traditional Textiles of Tunisia and Related North African
California: Craft and Folk Art Museum, 1985.
Arthur, Kojo and Rowe, Robert. " Akan Kente Cloth Symbols: Introduction." Akan
Kente Cloths. November 18, 2005. Marshall University. December 1, 2005
Republic of Ghana. 1995. Network Computer Systems Ltd. December 1, 2005.
History of Kente. 1999-2001. Travel Ghana Ltd. December 1, 2005
Exploring Africa. Michigan State University. December 1, 2005.
Ghana National Cloth Kente. Embassy of Ghana in Japan. December 1, 2005.
History of Ashanti Kente Cloth. 2005. Midwest Trade Group. December 1, 2005.
Introduction to Ashanti Kente Cloths. Version: March 18, 2003. Clarke, Duncan.
December 1, 2005. <http://www.adire.clara.net/kenteintro.htm>
Kente. 2005. New York Times Company. December 1, 2005.
Kente Cloth. 2004. afrodome.com. December 1, 2005.
Wrapped in Pride. National Museum of African Art. December 1, 2005.