Kente is an indigenous Ghanaian colourful textile, made of interwoven cloth strips of silk and cotton. The brilliant colours and intricate designs associated with Kente have definitely made this fabric the best known of all Ghanaian, and perhaps even all West African textiles. Every design has a story with a proverbial meaning, giving each cloth its own distinction. Kente cloth is native to the Ewe and Akan people of Ghana, with origins dating back to around the 12th century. The word “Kente” comes from the word “kenten”, which means basket and has grown to be the designated name of the cloth which the locals themselves know as “nwentoma” or “woven cloth.”
The Kente Cloth is more than a clothing item, it is a visual representation of history philosophy, ethics, oral literature religious beliefs and political thought.
According to tradition kente is reserved for special occasion, it is not meant to be used for common place or daily activities or an ordinary wear. It can also be used as special gift item or clothing item used for rites of passage such a child naming, puberty rites invitations, graduations, marriage ceremony, soul washing, burial and ancestral remembrance ceremonies. It is used not only for its beauty but also for its symbolic significance. Each of the cloth has a name and a meaning, names and meanings are derived from historical events, individual achievements, proverbs, philosophical concepts, oral literature, moral values, social code of conduct, human behaviour, and certain attributes of plant and animals life.
Kente has achieved a tremendous international recognition and has become one of the tangible manifestations of an ever-growing sense of Pan Africanizm. Kente is more widely recognized as one of the shinning strands which make up the colourful cultural fabric of our global village.
The origin of Kente cloth is explained partly with a legend and partly with historical account, coming from two important towns in Asante Region of Ghana, namely Bonwire and Adawomase.
The Ewe people of Ghana, much like their akan counterparts are very skilled artists and are well known for their Kente cloth designs. The techniques used are the same as those used by the Akan, however the choice of preferred patterns and design may vary due to cultural differences.
The history and invention of Kente is also a subject of controversy among the Ewes and the Akans in Ghana. The Akans have always been credited by historians the originators of Kente cloth.
Historians maintain that kente cloth grew out of various weaving traditions that existed in West Africa prior to the formation of the Asante Kingdom. These techniques were appropriated through vast trade networks, as were materials such as French and Italian silk, which became increasingly desired in the 18th century and were combined with cotton and wool to make kente.
Kente cloth is also worn by the Ewe people, who were under the rule of the Asante kingdom in the late 18th century. It is believed that the Ewe, who had a previous tradition of horizontal loom weaving, adopted the style of kente cloth production from the Asante with some important differences. Since the Ewe were not centralized, kente was not limited to use by royalty, though the cloth was still associated with prestige and special occasions. A greater variety in the patterns and functions exist in Ewe kente, and the symbolism of the patterns often has more to do with daily life than with social standing or wealth.
Although Kente, as we know it was developed in the 17th Century A.D. by the Asante people according to historians, it has it roots in a long tradition of weaving in Africa dating back to about 3000 B.C. The origin of Kente is explained with both a legend and historical accounts. A legend has it that a man named Ota Karaban and his friend Kwaku Ameyaw from the town of Bonwire (now the leading Kente weaving center in Asante), learned the art of weaving by observing a spider weaving its web. Taking a cue from the spider, they wove a strip of raffia fabric and later improved upon their skill. They reported their discovery to their chief Nana Bobie, who in turn reported it to the Asantehene at that time. The Asantehene adopted it as a royal cloth and encouraged its development as a cloth of prestige reserved for special occasions.
There are more than 350 patterns used in kente weaving. These patterns are formed by unique methods of intertwining the threads of various colors.
There are differences in how the Kente cloth is worn by men and women. On average, a men’s size cloth measures 24 strips wide, making it about 8 feet wide and 12 feet long. Men usually wear one piece wrapped around the body, leaving the right shoulder and hand uncovered, in a toga-like style. Women may wear either one large piece or a combination of two or three pieces of varying sizes ranging from 5-12 strips, averaging of 6 feet long. Age, marital status, and social standing may determine the size and design of the cloth an individual would wear.
Kente is the most celebrated, richly variegated, and important of all the textiles made in Ghana.