History of Ashanti Kente Cloth--More than a Piece
A Part of Culture
Although Kente, as we know it was developed in the 17th Century A.D.
by the Ashanti people, 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 Ashanti), 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 (The Ashanti Chief) at that time. The Asantehene
adopted it as a royal cloth and encouraged its development as a cloth
of prestige reserved for special occasions.
Historical accounts trace the origin of Kente weaving to early weaving
traditions in ancient West African Kingdoms that flourished between 300
A.D. and 1600 A.D. Some historians maintain that Kente is an outgrowth
of various weaving traditions that existed in West Africa prior to the
formation of the Ashanti Kingdom in the 17th Century. Archaeological research
has dated examples of narrow-strip cloths woven in West Africa as early
as the 11th Century A.D. and perhaps earlier. Some examples of woven fabrics
have been found in the caves of the Bandiagara cliffs in Mali. These cloths
used in burial ceremonies, probably, during the medieval Ghana, Mali and
Soghai Empires, have technical and aesthetic features similar to many
of the narrow-strip cloths in many parts of West Africa. Such cloths which
the Akans call "Nsaa" are important components of scared royal
paraphernalia in most Akan royal courts today and are know to have been
traded with articles of prestige by Akan Kings and chiefs early in the
17th Century. Many features of such cloths appear in the early and later
narrow-strip cloths woven in Ashanti. Given these historical accounts,
it is believed that the Ashanti craftsmen might have learned weaving skills
from other peoples living North and West of them and later developed their
unique style of cloth.
While Kente Cloth may have its roots in 11th Century West African
weaving traditions, weaving in Africa as a whole was developed earlier.
Elsewhere in Africa, archaeological excavations have produced such weaving
instruments as spindle whores and loom weights in ancient Meroe Empire
which flourished between 500 B.C. and 300 A.D. in other African Civilizations
in the Nile Valley such as Kemte (Egypt) and Nubia or Kush, there is an
abundance of pictorial and archaeological evidence proving the existence
of a weaving industry as early as 3200 B.C.
Weaving apparatus are hand made by the weavers themselves or by others
who have specialized in equipment making. A set of weaving apparatus include
the loom (Kofi nsadua "a Friday-born loom") which is constructed
with wood; a set of two, four or six heddles (asatia, asanan or asasia)
attached to treadles with pulleys (awidle) with spools (donowa) inserted
in them; shuttles (kurokurowa) with bobbins (awua) inserted in them; beaters
(kyeree) and sword stick (tabon). Other supporting equipment are skein
winder (fwirdie) and bobbin winder (dadabena), bobbins holder (menkomena)
"I walk alone" used for holding bobbins (awua) during warp-laying
(nhomatene) and the heddle-making frame (asakuntun or asadua). These apparatus,
like motifs in a cloth, have symbolic meanings and are accorded a great
deal of respect.
Yarns for weaving come in a variety of forms and qualities. In the
past yarns were either spun from locally grown cotton or unraveled from
cotton and silk cloths imported from Europe and Asia. Today, factory made
cotton, silk or spun rayon yarns are obtained from factories in Ghana
and outside Ghana. Various colors of yarns may be combined in particular
ways to reflect the symbolic significance of the cloth. Quality of yarns
used in weaving a particular cloth reflects on the level of prestige associated
with the cloth. Silk yarns are usually considered the most prestigious
and are therefore the most highly valued. Silk cloth, in the past were
reserved for royalty and the wealthy. An average width of a strip is 4
inches. Several strips are carefully arranged and hand-sewn together (some
weavers use sewing machines in recent times) to obtain a desired size.
Tradition has it that Kente is woven mainly by men. Women, in the past,
played a significant role by spinning raw cotton into yarns, dying yarns
into desired colors, sewing strips together to form large cloths and assisting
in the marketing of the cloths. Today, factory spun yarns have replaced
hand-spun yarns, and therefore, the woman's role is mainly in the area
of sewing strips together and marketing the cloth.
In its cultural context of use, Kente is more than just a cloth. Like
most of Africa's visual art forms, Kente is a visual representation of
history, philosophy, ethics, oral literature, religious belief, social
values and political thought. Originally, its use was reserved for their
royalty and limited to special social and sacred functions. When its production
increased, it became more accessible to those who could afford to buy
it. However, its prestigious status was maintained, and it has continued
to be associated with wealth, high social status and cultural sophistication.
Today, in spite of the proliferation of both the handwoven and machine
printed Kente, the authentic forms of the cloth are still regarded as
a symbol of social prestige, nobility and a sense of cultural sophistication.
According to Akan traditional protocol, Kente is reserved for very
important and special social or religious occasions. Originally, it was
not meant to be used for commonplace daily activities or as an ordinary
wear. Its use for making clothing accessories was limited to items deemed
scared or special and were used only for special occasions. In many cases
the use of Kente has a sacred intent. It may be used as a special gift
item during such rites and ceremonies as child naming, puberty, graduation,
marriage and soul-washing. It may also be used as a symbol of respect
for the departed souls during burial rites and ancestral remembrance ceremonies.
its significance as a symbol of prestige, gaiety and glamour is evident
during such community celebrations as festivals and commemoration of historical
events, when people proudly wear the best of their Kente Cloths to reflect
the spirit of the occasion.
There are gender differences in how the cloth is worn. On average,
a man's size cloth measures 24 strips ( 8 ft. wide) and 12 ft. long. men
usually wear one piece wrapped around the body, leaving the right shoulder
and hand uncovered, in a toga-like style. Some men wear a jumpa, a kind
of collarless shirt over which the cloth is wrapped. Women may wear either
one large piece or a combination of two or three pieces of varying sizes
ranging from 5-12 strips (20 inches to 48 inches wide) and an average
of 6 ft. long. These are wrapped around the body with or without a matching
blouse. In some cases elderly women with high social status may wear a
large piece in toga-like fashion just as men do. Within traditional societies,
age, marital, and social standing may determine the size and design of
cloth an individual would wear. Social changes and modern living have
brought about significant changes in how Kente is used.
Kente is Used not only for its beauty but also for its symbolic significance.
Each cloth has a name and a meaning; and each of the numerous patterns
and motifs 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 of conduct, human
behavior and certain attributes of plant and animal life. Patterns and
motifs are rendered in geometric abstractions of objects associated with
the intended meaning. Sometimes. some of such patterns and motifs are
arbitrarily determined, and their forms have no direct structural similarities
with the concepts or objects symbolized. their relationship is primarily
conceptual rather than representational.
Patterns and motifs are generally created by weavers who also assign
names and meanings to them. Forms, names and means of such patterns and
motifs are sometimes given by weavers who may obtain them through dreams
and during contemplative moments when they are said to be in communion
with the spiritual world. Sometimes, kings and elders may ascribe names
to cloths that they specially commission. Generally, names are based on
the warp arrangements of the cloth, however, in some instances, both warp
and weft arrangements determine a name of a cloth.
There are over 300 different types of cloth designs, each with its
name. Each cloth design comes with numerous variations-in color and distribution
of motifs. This chart presents names of 54 different cloth designs, and
42 motifs, their literal meanings and their symbolic significance. Symbolism
are given interpretations on the basis of the general Akan culture.
Color symbolism within the Akan culture affects the aesthetics of
Kente. Colors are chosen for both their visual effect and their symbolic
meanings. A weaver's choice of colors for both weft and warp designs,
may be dictated either by tradition or by individual aesthetic taste.
There are gender differences in color preferences, dictated by tradition,
individual aesthetic taste and by spirit of the occasion. As a convention
rather than a strict code of dress, women tend to prefer cloths with background
or dominant colors that are lighter or tinted, such as white, light yellow,
pink, purple, light blue, light green and turquoise. Generally, men tend
to prefer cloths with background or dominant colors that are on the shaded
side, such as black, dark blue, dark green, maroon, dark yellow, orange
and red. Social changes and modern living have, however, led some people
to ignore these traditional norms, resulting in color choice based on
YELLOW in all its variations is associated
with the yoke of the egg, ripe and edible fruits and vegetables and also
with the mineral gold. In some spiritual purification rituals mashed yarn
is rendered yellow with oil palm and served with eggs. It symbolizes sanctity,
preciousness, royalty, wealth, spirituality, vitality and fertility.
PINK is associated with the female essence
of life. It is viewed as red rendered mild and gentle, and therefore associated
with tenderness, calmness, pleasantness, and sweetness. According to Akan
social thought, these attributes are generally considered as essential
aspects of the female essence.
RED is associated with blood, sacrificial
rites and the shedding of blood. Red-eyed mood means a sense of seriousness,
readiness for a serious spiritual or political encounter. Red is therefore
used as a symbol of heightened spiritual and political mood, sacrifice
BLUE is associated with the blue sky,
the abode of the Supreme Creator. it is therefore used in a variety of
ways to symbolize spiritual sanctity, good fortune, peacefulness, harmony
and love related ideas.
GREEN is associated with vegetation,
planting, harvesting and herbal medicine. Tender green leaves are usually
used to sprinkle water during purification rituals. It symbolizes growth,
vitality, fertility, prosperity, fruitfulness, abundant health and spiritual
PURPLE is viewed in the same way as maroon.
It is considered as earth associated with color used in rituals and healing
purposes. It is also associated color used in rituals and healing purposes.
It is also associated with feminine aspects of life. Purple cloths are
mostly worn by females.
MAROON has a close resemblance to red-brown
which is associated with the color of Mother Earth. Red-brown is usually
obtained from clay and is therefore associated with healing and the power
to repel malevolent spirits.
derives its symbolism from the
white part of the egg and from white clay used in spiritual purification,
healing, sanctification rites and festive occasions. In some situations
it symbolizes contact with ancestral spirits, deities and other unknown
spiritual entities such as ghosts. it is used in combination with black,
green or yellow to express notion, spirituality, vitality and balance.
GREY derives its symbolism from ash.
Ash is used for healing and spiritual cleansing rituals to re-create spiritual
balance when spiritual blemish has occurred. It is also used in rituals
for protection against malevolent spirits. Grey is therefore associated
with spiritual blemish but also with spiritual cleansing.
SILVER is associated
with the moon which represents the female essence of life. Silver ornaments
are usually worn by women and are used in the context of spiritual purification,
naming ceremonies, marriage ceremonies and other community festivals.
it symbolizes serenity, purity and joy.
GOLD derives its
significance from the commercial value and social prestige associated
with the precious mineral. Gold dust and gold nuggets were used as medium
of exchange and for making valuable royal ornaments. It symbolizes royalty,
wealth, elegance, high status, supreme quality, glory and spiritual purity.
BLACK derives its significance from the notion
that new things get darker as they mature; and physical aging comes with
spiritual maturity. The Akans blacken most of their ritual objects to
increase their spiritual potency. Black symbolizes an intensified spiritual
energy, communion with the ancestral spirits, antiquity, spiritual maturity
and spiritual potency.
Kwaku Ofori-Ansa, 120033. Al Rights
With the input of customers and suppliers we have developed
a variety of customized Kente products which serve as excellent inspirational
and cultural symbols, as well as uniquely beautiful and artistic fashion
accessories. Our Kente Cloth products are constructed with durability
and adaptability in mind. For example, each Stole is customized for organizations
through the use of various colors and imprinted with the organization's
name. Customization of the product tremendously helps to promote spirit
for any college, church or organization.