Your Ultimate Guide to Ghana Kente Cloth

6 min read

Your Ultimate Guide to Ghana Kente Cloth

Ghana Kente Cloth and The status of a nation

The history of authentic Ghanaian Kente cloth is said to date back to the 17th century under the rule of Chief Oti Akenten. At this time, Ghana had established trade with the Middle and the Far East, and among the imports were silk fabrics and dyes; however, textile production in Ghana, according to research, had begun about 1000 BC.

Kente cloth is named after Chief Oti Akenten of the Asante, and under his decree, kente cloth was spun and fashioned exclusively for royal ritual use. This fact cemented the status and worth of kente cloth, which took on significance through the different colors and designs used to communicate strong messages rooted in Ghanaian Asante traditions.

Although history identifies the 17th century as the beginning of kente cloth, traditionally made from cotton and silk-blend, some historians date the cloth to the 11th century. The origin of the name "kente" also differs, but the origin of Kente under chief Oti Akenten appears to be the most plausible because it ties in with the availability of silk acquired through trade at that time.

Each color used to weave authentic kente cloth has a universal meaning, while the designs reflect the Asante ethos that pronounces righteous or virtuous values.

  • Gold: status, serenity, wealth, and royalty
  • Yellow: beauty, royalty, and wealth
  • Green: renewal or fertility, vegetation or forest
  • Blue: pure spirit, peace, harmony, and love
  • Red: passion, ancestors' blood, political, and death
  • Black: Spiritual awareness creating a bond with ancestors, strength, and heritage
  • Pink: love and happiness
  • Orange: wealth and joy
  • Silver: purity and joy
  • White: purity and festive
  • Grey: healing

The production of Kente cloth slowly increased, and the Ewe people, who were part of the Asante kingdom in the 18th century, adopted the kente cloth weaving style. The Ewe people who were widespread in the region did not abide by the Asante decree of reserving kente cloth for royalty. However, the origin and weave style of kente cloth was appreciated, and the cloth was viewed as prestigious and only to wore on special occasions.

The Ewe introduced their designs, and the symbolism of these designs related more to daily life than to social standing or wealth. Kente cloth represents the national identity, and because authentic Kente is completely handwoven, it has retained its value as a prized possession to this day.

Authentic kente cloth represents the status of Ghana as a West African nation. It has great traditional significance and serves to identify the nation wherever the Ghanaian people may be in the world. It remains a bold representation of a people who were engulfed in the slave trade, and today kente cloth is worn as a stole by African Americans with West African heritage who graduate from American colleges.

Weaving Kente

Legend has it that two men came across an intricate and beautifully spun spider web in the forest, which was spun with a single thread. The men exchanged favors with the spider for its weaving secret, and this is how the kente weave came to be.

Kente cloth is weaved from a single thread, and traditionally it was men who reserved the privilege to be the weavers of Kente. After all, the task of weaving cloth for royalty was of such importance as it represented the history, culture and traditions, ethics, and religious beliefs of the Asante nation.

Weaving kente cloth is time-consuming as it is woven by hand on a horizontal strip loom, producing a narrow band of cloth not more than four inches wide. These completed bands are later stitched together to create the final product, which varies in size.

Weaving involves vertical threads called the warp, and horizontal threads called the weft. The design and color choice are meticulously followed in the weaving process. The weaving loom is constructed from wood and has four or six heddles or loops for holding thread. The warp thread is controlled by these heddles, which are attached to foot pedals with pulleys that have spools of thread inserted in them. The pullies are used to separate the warp thread so the weft thread can be inserted between them. Different color patterns, all symbolic, are created with either the warp or weft individually, or a combination of both can be used depending on the design requirements.

What is Kente cloth made from?

Silk was the traditional thread used to weave kente cloth. Contemporary Kente is made from combinations of silk, cotton, wool, rayon which is a synthetic fiber, and metallic thread, which adds shine to the cloth.

Although authentic kente cloth is still hand woven, the cloth is now also made with machines, but these machine-made Kente are African wax prints, making Kente-designed cloth more accessible and affordable.

Kente cloth is not only used to make garments. Blankets, placemats, and pillowcases are also made from kente cloth.

Who wears kente cloth?

Both men and women wear kente cloth but differently. Men wear their kente cloth much the same way as a Roman toga, by wrapping the cloth around their body and draped over their left shoulder. Women wear their kente cloth in two pieces, as an ankle-length dress and a shawl which is often used as a baby sling.

Kente cloth designed for men usually takes up to 24 strips to fashion and will measure about 8 feet wide and 12 feet long. The Kente cloth for women is smaller, using between 5 and 12 strips and measuring about 6 feet long. Age and body stature will influence the actual size of each individual.

Fashion designers have incorporated the kente designs into contemporary clothing and are made for both sexes. As mentioned, in recent years graduating college students wear a Kente stole to their graduation ceremony.

Regardless of the widespread popularity of kente cloth, it remains symbolic of the Ghanaian people, their history, and traditional values; and although designs are used in modern-day fashion items, it still holds prestige for the wearer, and most people will only wear their kente cloth garments on special occasions like births, weddings, funeral, and other important occasions.

child wrapped in ghana kente cloth

Designs and their meaning.

Each Kente design is given a name which is sometimes given by the weavers who are given the names in dreams or when in a spiritual state. The chief and elders will also appropriate a name for specially commissioned designs. Every kente design is registered and copyrighted to ensure the protection of Asante heritage. Here are three designs that relate to different aspects of life:

  • Fatima Nkrumah: This design stems from Kwame Nkrumah, who was the first president of Ghana when the country gained independence from Britain in 1957. Fatima was the first lady who was of Egyptian descent, and their marriage served as a symbol of unity and the avoidance of racial discrimination.
  • Zig-zag motive: This design symbolizes life's meandering, which is never a smooth, straightforward journey but is littered with obstacles that must be overcome.
  • Mako Maso Adeae: this means my heart's desire and is a message to say "I love you" to a lady by leaving the kente cloth at her front door. This Kente cloth shows just how much warmth lies in the heart of those in love, and it is celebrated the first time the words "I love you" are uttered, even if they are spoken directly but delivered as a beautiful Kente cloth which is a memorable keepsake for any lady.

Gifts of kente cloth carry powerful messages that include good health, wealth, strength, success, and so on. Specific designs will favor certain occasions, yet each design is a celebration in some form or another. Death is not celebrated, but the life of the deceased and their place with the ancestors is celebrated.

Most West African families will have some form of kente cloth in their home that depicts the virtues of life and their deep-seated heritage as a people.

ghana kente cloth lying draped over a couch

Kente blankets and throws

Kente cloth is more than just a cloth used as a garment. Over the centuries, the use of kente cloth in home decor has become the norm. A kente blanket or throw makes any bedroom aesthetically pleasing. The designs or patterns flow harmoniously, and the use of different colors will stand out as a signature piece in the room. Not all color combinations are contrasty and hard on the eye; there are color combinations that use softer colors that are more inviting and pleasing to the eye.

The range of kente blankets and throws is vast, and without knowing the meaning of the designs with the color combinations, you will still be drawn to them even if it is just to feel the texture, weight, and softness. Knowing the name and meaning of the kente design is nice, but with the aesthetic and comfort value of these blankets and throws, you will be sold anyway.

Knowing the history and messages embedded in kente cloth will add meaning to your own living space. You may even decide to use kente cloth as a decorative mural in your living room or lounge to add color and warmth to the space. Kente-styled scatter cushions on an otherwise bland leather, or material lounge suit adds that little bit of extra eye-catching color to your seating arrangement.

Authentic Kente cloth is valued for its rich history and its link to nature. As a non-verbal communication tool, it has worked well to define the people of Ghana as people with great virtue.

To get your own Ghana kente throw 

Steve Watts
Steve Watts

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