There are different ways to look at a West African kente (KEN-tay) cloth hanging in a museum gallery. You can stand a few feet back, watching the colors and patterns dance in a vibrant rhythm across the cloth. Or you can step in close and see what gives the cloth its visual energy. Blocks of pattern dark and light, straight and zigzag, horizontal and vertical shifting and changing, make the cloth hum with life.
Now imagine the cloth as clothing, draped around the body. The patterns would shimmy with the wearer's every move. For the Asante (uh-SAHN-tay) of Ghana (also known as the Ashanti), the colors and patterns also have symbolic meanings that add another dimension to the cloth.
Ghana, Asante Man's cloth, late 19th century Silk Minneapolis Institute of Art
Like other fabrics, kente cloth is woven on a loom. But instead of using a loom the same width as the finished fabric which might be eight feet wide Asante weavers use a narrow loom. They weave a very long strip of fabric about the width of a hand. The strip is then cut into pieces, which are sewn together to make the finished cloth.
Patterns can be formed by the warp (the threads that run lengthwise) or the weft (the threads the weaver passes back and forth across the warp). The warp threads, often more than 90 feet long, are attached to the loom before any weaving begins. Their colors remain the same throughout the entire strip. Sometimes the warp shows as solid-color stripes in the finished cloth; sometimes it is completely hidden by the weft. Using the weft in various ways, the weaver forms the pattern blocks typical of kente cloth.
The weaver must measure the pattern blocks carefully as he works. If they are different sizes, the pattern will not line up properly across the finished cloth when the strips are sewn together.
The Asante are one of two cultural groups in Ghana with a long tradition of weaving kente cloth.
Asante weavers use a narrow strip loom common throughout West Africa. The warp threads stretch out behind the loom and are anchored under heavy rocks about ten feet away. Traditionally, weaving was done only by men, but today a few women are weavers as well. Photograph courtesy of Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
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The colors of the warp threads appear as solid vertical stripes in some blocks of this cloth. In other blocks, the warp is completely covered by horizontal weft stripes or appears as stripes behind the weft design.
Hundreds of variations are possible for each element of a kente cloth for the stripes formed by the warp threads, for the designs created with the weft threads, and for the colors used throughout. But Asante weavers rarely invent variations on their own. Instead, they choose from the wide range of designs established by tradition.
Kente cloth had its beginnings in weaving traditions dating back to the 11th century. In the late 1500s, as the Asante empire became powerful and wealthy, traders brought colorful silk fabrics from Italy, India, and North Africa to the region. By the early 1700s, the Asante had begun the practice of unraveling imported fabrics and reweaving the silk threads into splendid fabrics for the royal court and regional chiefs. Kente cloth has been known for its dramatic colors and intricate patterns ever since.
An Asante weaver might know hundreds of patterns by heart, each having its own name. Warp patterns, which are stripes of color, have names taken from proverbs, important chiefs or queen mothers, or historical events. Weft designs are usually named for plants, animals, or objects that the pattern resembles. A finished cloth usually has the same name as the warp pattern. When purchasing a kente cloth, customers often consider the meaning of the names.
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The warp pattern of this cloth, formed by repeating sets of 4 white threads and 44 black threads, is called kubi.
The solid horizontal bands of this pattern block are known as babadua, named after a plant similar to bamboo. It is one of the most common designs on Asante kente cloths.
The repeating triangular shapes in this pattern block are called nkyemfre, meaning unity in strength.
In the past, the finest, most intricate kente cloths were reserved for Asante royalty. The Asantehene (the king) had a special assistant whose job it was to select, store, and repair his official wardrobe. Many patterns and designs could be used only on royal cloths. Even among lesser officials, it was bad manners to have a finer cloth than your superior.
Kente cloth has become a symbol of pride in African heritage. Leaders from all over the African continent and elsewhere have adopted it as part of their official dress. Asante people now wear kente for formal occasions much as Westerners wear tuxedos and evening gowns. Kente cloth is often handed down from father to son and mother to daughter as a treasured family heirloom. Today, kente patterns are often reproduced in machine-made and printed fabrics that take far less time to make.
In America, kente is similarly a symbol of pride and unity for many people of African heritage. High school and college students and professors often wear strips of kente as stoles at graduation ceremonies. Colorful kente patterns are used to decorate nearly everything imaginable, from mouse pads to wrapping paper to furniture upholstery, making it possible for people to celebrate African identity in their everyday lives. Kente is also an important symbol during the African American holiday Kwanzaa and on Martin Luther King Jr's Birthday.
Kente cloth is only one part of an Asante leader's attire. The Asantehene (king) pictured above also wears gold jewelry and carries a staff or flywhisk. Photograph courtesy of the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
In addition to wearing royal cloth and gold jewelry, during official appearances the Asantehene sits on an elaborately carved and decorated stool or throne like this one.
Ghana, Asante Chief's Chair, 19th century Wood, leather, brass Minneapolis Institute of Art
When making a kente cloth, a weaver uses many colors, each with a special meaning. Look closely at this kente cloth. What colors do you see? Research their meanings, using the Internet and your local library. Based on their meanings, what colors would you want in your own cloth?
Today you can find kente cloth and kente patterns in the United States. Where have you seen kente cloth or patterns in your community? When people in the United States wear kente clothing, what might they be expressing? How is the wearing of kente cloth different in the United States than in Ghana?
Visit the online exhibition Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity from the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. You can see more examples of kente cloths, learn how a kente cloth is wrapped, and even design your own cloth! Click here to enter the site. (Please note that you will be exiting the Minneapolis Institute of Art Web site.)
Chocolate, Debbi, and John Ward. Kente Colors. New York: Walker Books for Young Readers, 1996. (Youth literature)
Lamb, Venice. West African Weaving. New York: Duckworth, 1975.
Musgrove, Margaret. The Spider Weaver: A Legend of Kente Cloth. New York: Blue Sky Press, 2001. (Youth literature)
Kente cloths are worn by Asante people at important occasions and celebratory events like weddings, festivals, and funerals. What kind of clothing do people in your community wear at such events? How does that clothing compare to kente cloths? Design an outfit you would wear to an important event.
To make the warp, fold a large piece of construction paper in half. From the fold, draw evenly spaced lines, leaving an inch at the end and on both sides. Cut along the lines and then unfold the paper. Next, cut narrow bands of different colored paper to serve as weft strips, and add designs with markers or crayons. Weave the strips in and out of the warp to make a pattern. Repeat with different patterns to make the weaving even more colorful.