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Commissioned by The Palace of Typographic Masonry, curator, researcher and writer Christel Vesters set out to observe the many aspects of the Kente: a Ghanaian textile known for its often colourful geometric motifs.

01 Kente

Kente is a hand-made, strip-woven fabric, typical of the textile tradition of the Akan-Asanti peoples and the Ewe peoples of West-Africa. Made in cotton, silk or ‘modern’ rayon, using mainly golden yellow, green, red, black and/or blue threads, kente is distinguished by its intricate geometric designs produced by the juxtaposition of differently patterned stripes of woven fabric.

Historically, kente stripes are woven on a horizontal, narrow-band treadle loom consisting of a wooden frame, a single pair of heddles and a counterweight holding the warp in place. This makeshift loom produced simple plain weaves, using a limited colour scheme of un-dyed white or dun and indigo yarns. Despite these limited means, a seemingly unlimited variety of patterns could be produced; each kente pattern bearing its own name and meaning. In time, as weaving techniques evolved and the selection of dyes expanded, so did the catalogue of kente designs.

On average, a kente warp stripe measures between 7,5 -11,5 cm in width and up to ten metres in length. The woven stripes are cut into equal sections and sewn together lengthwise, creating an intricate design composed of different repeat patterns. A typical Asante man’s cloth requires 24 stripes, measuring approximately 3 metres in length and 2 in width. The main materials used for a kente woven cloth are cotton and silk, neither of which are local to the region. Early samples of woven textiles found in the area are made of raffia, or bast fibres. Cotton was most likely imported from northern areas. Silk was introduced by Dutch sailors and merchants who traded in precious Indian and Chinese silk fabrics with the Asanti rulers in exchange for gold and slaves. Local craftsmen would unravel the silk fabrics and re-use the individual threads in their weavings.

In the early 18th century, kente cloths became a royal fabric par excellence. With the founding of a new and independent nation in 1701, Asante kings looked for a symbol, something to display their wealth and status. Kente cloths - intricately designed, vibrantly coloured and made out of rare materials - were an exclusive and desirable object and therefore a symbol of power and prestige. Up and till today, whenever a new design is created, it should always be offered to the king first.

Today, kente has become a token of ‘Africanness’. Especially amongst the African diasporas in the United-States and Europe, kente designed fabrics are worn with pride to celebrate a shared cultural heritage (one particular example is the use of a single strip as a ‘stole’ in academic or liturgic ceremonial dress). However, like the coloured stripe designs of Scottish Tartans or the red and white chequered pattern of ‘Brabants Bont’; kente patterns have taken on a life beyond their cultural origins and are now part of universal design idiom.

The true origin of kente weaving remains a contested subject and have been a long-time issue of dispute between the Ashanti and Ewe tribes, each claiming it as a hallmark of their particular culture and ethnic identity. Amongst the Ashanti, one popular explanation of the crafts’ invention is the folk tale of the two local farmers Kuragu and Ameyaw. According to the legend, on one of their hunting trips they encountered a brilliantly patterned web spun by Asana, a trickster spider from West-African mythology, who, in exchange for some favours, shared her knowledge of the weaving technique with the weavers. Although the legend certainly defuses the quarrel over kente’s true origins, and the ethnical claims attached to it, a more plausible explanation is that, like any other textile tradition, kente weaving is an amalgam, shaped through encounters with different crafts traditions and by different cultural influences. In other words, kente’s characteristic composite structure not only typifies its design and mode of fabrication, but also its own material history.

Asantehene Agyeman Prempeh I wearing an Oyokoman kente cloth. 1926

02 Interweaving Variables

Hand-weaving is amongst the oldest crafts in the world. It is also a craft that probably requires the fewest materials: a wooden stick and some threads. In terms of its technical construction too, weaving, in its bare form, consists of one system of threads, the weft, that crosses another, the warp, at right angles, as Anni Albers notes in her key text On Weaving (1956). Yet despite this simple set-up, through the ages and across the world people have created an endlessly rich spectrum of textile designs.

Kente weaving is a prime example of the countless variations that can be achieved with a minimum of elements. Take for instance a look at the early blue and white samples of kente cloths in R.S. Rattray’s seminal volume ‘Religion and Art in Ashanti’ from 1927. Using a basic white thread in the weft and one added colour in the set-up of the warp (blue), Rattray’s collection of samples demonstrates the enormous variety in patterns and designs that can be achieved by playing with the rhythm of the blue threads. By changing the number of consecutive blue threads in the warp, the weaver can create different combinations of smaller or thicker vertical stripes. Once a weaver starts adding blue threads to the weft, or starts applying different weaving techniques, the number of possibilities multiply.

With these three basic elements – warp, weft, and one coloured thread – kente weavers are able to create a multitude of different pattern blocks. Moving from the single pattern to the composition of the kente strip, a whole new level of possible combinations presents itself. Lengthwise, along the warp, different patterns are placed on top of one another like building blocks. Again, the possibilities to vary the design are infinite. In the kente cloth owned by the Palace for Typographic Masonry, for example, taking the first strip on the left, one weft pattern is repeated a number of times, and alternated with a simpler, striped pattern based on the coloured thread in the warp. Here, a white line separates the blocks organising the visual surface into a grid-like structure. Other examples show a more fluid design. Either way, the number of different patterns used within one woven strip tends to be restricted in order to keep the balance and visual rhythm in the overall design (for the same reason kente cloths tend to use a limited colour pallet and complex patterns are balanced with simpler ones).

The real visual complexity of the kente cloth is produced at the seams. This is where the woven strips are sewn together width wise and the pattern sequences which are organised horizontally within those strips are put into a relationship with one another. In some cloths strips the same pattern sequence is used and organised in a half drop repeat. In others, like the kente cloth owned by the Palace, different strip patterns are combined into one cloth which again add another layer to the complexity of the overall design.

How the different strips are organised determines the visual rhythm of the design. In the Palace’s cloth, reading from left to right horizontally (that is in the direction of the weft) the arrangement of the vertical strips can be broken down into a A B C D E F A B C F E B sequence. We also see how the repeat of the blue, green, red and yellow striped warp patterns, creates a kind of visual order, something our eye and brain can hold onto. However, if determining the order of the vertical strips is already a big challenge, trying to decipher the visual organisation of the whole design with its up and down shifting patterns, is like breaking the code of secure software. No matter how hard we try, we do not seem to be able to grasp the logic and order in the kente cloth’s design. A loom and a selection of six different colour threads creates a dazzling visual expression.

Ashanti kente cloth part of The Palace of Typographic Masonry's collection.

03 Mastering the Variables

Captain R.S. Rattray

One of the first Westerners to study the culture and customs of the Ashanti was Robert Sutherland Rattray, better known as Captain R.S. Rattray. Rattray received his education in Law and Anthropology at Oxford University. In 1906, after serving in the British Forces in South Africa, he was stationed in the Gold Coast which was a British Crown Colony on the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa. From 1921 till his retirement in 1930, Rattray headed the newly created ‘Anthropological Department of Ashanti, West-Africa’ which allowed him to dedicate his time wholly to his field research and writings on the Ashanti.

Rattray’s three part ‘general survey’ on the Ashanti has long been mandatory reading for any student on the subject; both in Ghana and abroad. He was also one of the first to embark on a detailed and systematic study of kente weaving. His inventory of over 200 kente patterns and their symbolic meaning is still a standard work for kente scholars and practitioners. After a short introduction on the customs and uses related to the folklore craft, Rattray describes the weaving technique of a few patterns, starting with the selection of colours for the warp and the weft. What follows is a meticulous recording of each manipulation of every single thread in the creation of one particular pattern. To support his in-depth analysis, Rattray included a schematic breakdown representing the different sequences according to which the shuttle passes through the sheds, using numbers and capital letters to indicate the colour of individual threads and their position.

Reading his technical descriptions of kente weaving is like trying to comprehend a foreign language; even with the accompanying illustrations his abstract and schematic reproductions still look like algebraic code. No wonder some scholars have taken Rattray’s diagrams to prove that Akan and Ashanti weaving patterns were in fact based on mathematical formula, such as the ‘Fibonacci sequence’, or ‘Pascal’s triangle’.

Scientific mindset

Rattray’s detailed description and systematic unravelling of the patterns he encountered during his field research illustrates his scientific ambition, which was to understand the true nature of the object in front of him, and to lay bare the variables and inner logic of each design. Rattray’s scientific mindset was indicative of the outlook on science that prevailed at the turn of the 20th Century, when early modern anthropology was still very much indebted to the Enlightenment ideals of ‘proper method’ and ‘true knowledge’. Driven by the idea that society and human behaviour, like natural phenomena, could be explained according to certain mathematical principles and patterns, an important task for the anthropologist was to collect empirical data and to systematically describe, classify and catalogue all known phenomena and varieties in the world. Like the Natural Philosophers and Encyclopaedists in previous centuries, early modern anthropology believed that by studying human beings, their customs and cultures as objects, a deeper understanding of the divine order of things would manifest itself. Of course, the a priori idea here is that the universe does in fact adhere to a certain order.

Here, in the encounter between an African textile tradition and a modern Western knowledge system, a fascinating symmetry unfolds between the unravelling of the intricate patterns of kente weaving, and the quest to uncover the patterns that organise the complex fabric of our universe. In both cases, being able to determine the variables and understand the ways in which different variations are produced would imply a form of mastery.

Colonial Gaze

However, when these noble ambitions are pursued under the aegis of a colonial authority, such as the British Colonial Service in the Gold Coast, other power relations come into play. For one, applying a western scientific model unto a local craft and culture already entails taking a kind of ownership.

Even when the anthropologist has undertaken his task with utmost respect and admiration of the ‘other’, it still means that one system of thought and one view of the world has been imposed upon another. Disconnected from its own cultural context and absorbed into another; kente’s original character of a fabric set in motion through body movements creating a dazzling visual vertigo, is disregarded and reduced to a flattened surface, subject to western scientific projections.

Last but not least, as part of the British Colonial Service, the research done by the Anthropological Department was by no means neutral in its objective but served an imperialist agenda, as the consensus at the time was that understanding the laws and culture of those ‘unknown’ societies would benefit the colonial powers in ruling the country.

Religion and Art in Ashanti, by R.S. Rattray, 1927

04 Symbols and Legends

Kente cloth has an extensive catalogue of motifs and patterns, each carrying a different meaning or story. Some patterns are designed in tribute to a member of the Ashanti’s royal family or a high-ranking chief; others are named after an important historical event, natural phenomenon, a plant or a species in the animal kingdom. There is also a category of kente patterns named after Ahanti proverbs and folklore legends.

Both the design of the warp (in terms of composition and colour) and that of the weft have their own individual names. Only a small selection of weft motifs bears a visual resemblance to the subject that the name refers to (rainbows, snakes, scissors, hands, letters). However, the majority of the patterns are abstract and geometric; their symbolic meaning does not stem from any visual resemblance. Rather, the universe of kente patterns presents itself as a coded language consisting of signs and symbols, like Egyptian hieroglyph and other pictographic writing systems. The one difference being that the language of kente design does not adhere to any fixed vocabulary, syntax, grammar, or any other semiotic logic. The meaning of a cloth cannot be deciphered by ‘reading’ its separate motifs ‘as words or letters’. In this respect, kente patterns are purely decorative.

The one ‘fixed’ element is the symbolic meaning of the colours: Yellow and gold are royal colours, bringing to mind the power of kings and important chiefs but also of the presence of a divine power. Green, as in many other cultures, symbolises fertility, vitality and growth; blue represents love, female affection and tranquillity. Marron represents mother earth whereas red stands for blood and strong political and spiritual feelings. But again, the significance of the colours should not be determined the same way one would in Western iconography, but rather as an indication of a mood, or general state of mind.


One of Captain R.S. Rattray’s important contributions to the study of Ashanti kente weaving is his inventory of over two hundred different kente designs in his 1927 publication Art and Religion in Ashanti, listing their names, design specifics, followed by their symbolic and cultural meaning. He also had some pattern designs photographed and reproduced in full colour, which was a costly affair at the time. In the introduction to his nomenclature, he observes “[that] each design was standardised, and that they were not flights of colour-fancy run riot. Each pattern has its name and in many cases also represents the clan, social status or even sex of the wearer; or it may refer to some proverbial saying.”

Pattern number 2 in Rattray’s index for instance, is titled Sama. “Called after a man of that name, the son of one of the former chiefs at Bonwere, the village of the weavers” followed by a technical description: “The warp consists entirely of yellow threads, into which red, black, red, green, red, black, red, green weft has been woven, in bands about 6 cm. broad; the portion of the web here shown being where the red weft mingles with the yellow warp.”

Pattern no 6 is called Kofi Esono (Kofi, the Elephant). Rattray records that according to legend ‘an Ashanti celebrity who was presented with this cloth by the King of Ashanti and given permission to wear it.”

Pattern number 20 is called Adweneasa, which translates into ‘my skill is exhausted’, or ‘my ideas have come to an end’. According to Rattray, “it is one of the best-known patterns in Ashanti, and weavers who can make it are considered masters of their craft.” Only the Kings of Ashanti are allowed to wear this complex pattern.

Pattern number 92, consisting of a simpler weave of differently coloured stripes, titled Kradie, which means ‘the Satisfied Soul’ is named after an Ashanti proverb.

For some of the patterns, such as Adweneasa, Rattray consulted a Manchester company specialised in weaving to produce pattern drawings (in tapestry weaving known as cartoons) of several of the designs which are also reproduced in the book. Interestingly, the grid-like pattern drawings were Rattray’s idea. As far is as known, local weavers did not use schematic drawing like these to prepare their designs, but they used small samples or created them from memory.

Lost in translation

Since its publication, Rattray’s index of kente patterns has taken on a life of its own. As kente specialist Doran H. Ross recounts, when asked about a specific pattern it is not unusual to find a weaver in Bonwire today consult Rattray’s book, or similar tables like Kwaku Ofori-Ansa’s chart of kente names and motifs from 1993. Collecting and documenting information on vast selection of the patterns in writing, which previously only existed as part of oral culture, has been of huge significance to the anthropological and ethnographic study of kente fabrics. However, as Ross points out, some of its expressive energy and soul got lost in the process: “It must also be emphasised that there is a considerable fluidity in naming – a fluidity that was certainly more pronounced before names were recorded in writing. […] There is no question that written studies have increased the codification of kente names and eliminated some of the wonderful nuances that once differentiated one weaver’s verbal interpretation of a pattern from that of another – even if they agreed on an abbreviated name for the cloth.”

Sample patterns of Ashanti kente textile

05 Patterns (Some General Observations)

Stemming from the Old French word patron – which refers to something or someone serving as a model – pattern and patterning imply the idea of the copy, repetition, seriality and standardisation. In textile design, besides colour, material and weave type, it is the pattern that defines the fabric. Visual patterns are created through symmetries, the rotation and reflection of motifs (be they figurative or abstract), or by simple repetition. One of the challenges in pattern design is the “repeat”, the points at which the individual pattern is repeated in the fabric. A “perfect” pattern design is seamless, creating an endless image without gaps or cuts.

Seriality and standardisation are the hallmarks of industrial production; whether high street or high end, the market demands that any next production cycle (every next roll of fabric) looks exactly the same as its original. Variations in colour or in patterning are considered faulty and discardable. Of course, when it comes to handmade crafts, slight variations between different objects are considered a token of its uniqueness, its authenticity.

Patterns bring order to the world, be that in nature, human and animal behaviour, abstract thought or manmade designs. For the 17th and 18th Century Natural Philosophers such as Isaac Newton, G.W. Leibniz and John Locke, the idea that the natural world adheres to a “Divine order” which can be understood by analysing its patterns and mathematical principles, quite literally, became the centre of their universe. Every natural phenomenon could be explained by mathematical laws and principles. Everything should be described and classified according to these laws and principles, eliminating any suggestion of chance or randomness and creating order instead. The paradox however was that in nature these regularities of form, (think of the sixfold symmetry of a snowflake or wind-made ripples in sand dunes), may show minuscule variations in each specimen, marking its uniqueness. In other words, nature does not adhere to a perfect pattern; its beauty and uniqueness lie in variation.

Natural Philosophy laid the foundation for modern science. We still attach more value to objective, measurable, calculable facts and logic explanations, than to intuition, synergy, or imagination. In fact, a large area of our lives is organised through systems based on standards and measurements. Even our mental and emotional health is assessed by comparing one’s individual state of mind with a set of standard behavioural patterns; our intelligence is measured through tests and scores on charts, and our online shopping experience is determined by algorithmic patterns that have already made a pre-selection for us. The problem with standards and patterns in this respect is that it starts to set a norm and subsequently the pattern starts to pattern; the model starts to model. In other words, the model or pattern becomes prescriptive rather than descriptive and any deviation from that norm becomes something negative, something faulty. This is what happened when R.S. Rattray’s index of kente patterns became a standard work, and people started to model their designs on them.

Patterns, or rather our implementation of and faith in patterns, prevent chaos, chance, unpredictability and uncertainty. This is not just a scientific or sociological phenomenon; our brains are wired in such a way that when confronted with a random, erratic or serendipitous visual image it immediately starts to scan for consistencies, similarities and repetitions. In short, the brain searches for patterns. Not being able to grasp a pattern in the blink of an eye, produces a sense of dazzlement. According to different accounts, this effect of visual vertigo created by the complex and intricate patterns of kente cloth, which was only enhanced when the fabric was worn and put in motion by the movement of human body, was what made the cloth exclusive and majestic; its whole allure was to impress and dazzle.

Page from Brigitte Menzel's 'Textilien aus Westafrika Band I-III'

06 Digital Logic

When contemplating the fundamental nature of weaving, or how the two variables of warp and weft can be put into different constellations to produce an almost endless series of variations, it is easy to see why people compare weaving with the digital language of zeros and ones. Almost every publication on weaving will refer to the genealogy between the punch card system of the Jacquard Loom and Charles Babbage’s first modern computer design. Babbage’s colleague, Ada Lovelace, is said to have made the comparison that “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves”.

In the Jacquard machine, patterns are programmed upon cardboard cards with small punched holes. A string of these ‘punch cards’ run through a mechanism controlling which warp threads should be raised in order to allow the weft thread to pass under. Written in a binary code of open and closed holes, each punch card held the instructions for a specific weaving pattern. Although Jacquard’s use of punch cards to direct the weaving process marked a big leap in the development of the loom (and consequently the production of patterned textiles), people have used binary code to visualise and translate pattern designs since the earliest of days; take for instance the gridded cartoons with black and white squares representing the over and under movement of the weft. These ‘coded’ pattern drawings show that abstract mathematical thinking has been elementary to the craft of (hand)weaving long since Jacquard introduced pattern software in the shape of punch cards.

However, Jacquard’s loom and Babbage’s Analytical Machine introduced a dilemma that designers are still grappling with today. Notwithstanding the efficiency of the mechanised loom and its digitised offspring in terms of speed, costs, labour, and their ability to (re)produce the exact same pattern design over and over again; these machines have also standardised textile production.

Being able to produce the perfect copy – in fact, a series of perfect copies – has long been the virtue of industrialised production processes, but this comes at the expense of creative experimentation. Finding ways to work within these standardised systems and maintaining some room for one’s own creative input seems to be the quest for many designers today. Just like the kente weavers on the tourist markets in Bonwire and Sakora Wonoo allow themselves some room to improvise on the standard (read: commercial) kente patterns, designers working within an industrialised system continue to carve out space to play around with some of the variables in order to create a unique expression.

Pattern drawing in 'Art and Religion in Ashanti', Oxford University Press, 1927.

07 Sum of its Parts

Today, kente has become a token of ‘Africanness’ in modern state Ghana and other West-African countries, but also, maybe even more so, abroad. In the United-States and in Europe for instance, kente designed fabrics are worn with pride amongst the African diasporas in celebration of a shared cultural heritage. One particular example is the use of a single woven strip of kente as a ‘stole’ in academic or liturgic ceremonial dress.

Clothing can communicate dissent or alliance, belonging and political belief. However, the commodification of kente as a cultural signifier for a shared African heritage and identity – and of a shared history of suppression and exploitation – is not without criticism or dismay. In her article ‘Embarrassment of Democrats Wearing Kente-Cloth Stoles’ for The New Yorker, Doreen St. Félix shares her insightful critique on the choice of prominent Democrats to express their solidarity with the Black community by wearing kente-cloth stoles. One of the arguments concerns the use of kente cloth as a uniform and universal symbol of (all) African heritage, aligning it with, what St. Félix calls, ‘the myth of the black monolith’, that is the idea (and representation) of the Black community as a bloc. But if there is one lesson we must have learned from our recent past, it is that cultural identities are never homogenous and uniform. In fact, it is the opposite. (St. Félix refers to recent rifts between black liberals and black leftists within the Black Lives Matter movement.)

Of course, no object, image or visual design can represent the whole of a nation, let alone the whole of a continent. And sure, all over the world, cultural heritage has become part of a process of commodification and commercialisation. But the naiveté with which these politicians use a cultural artefact to make a political statement (staged in front of the camera) just demonstrates a lack of knowledge (or willingness) to engage oneself with the complexities that lay beyond the surface.

Interestingly, the history of kente only supports this critique. Like most textiles in the world, the craft of kente weaving has been shaped overt time, influenced by encounters with different cultures. For starters, its basic technique of strip weaving, which has been the domestic industry of nomadic people for over two thousand years, was most likely introduced to the Ashanti from the northern and eastern fringes of Africa. The flow of trade goods between the peoples of sub-Saharan West-Africa and European, Mediterranean, and Asian ‘civilisations’ introduced fine textiles such as cotton, linen and silk; materials not local to the region but became the basic materials for traditional kente weaving. Today, synthetic fibres are imported for modern kente production.

Kente’s characteristic vibrant colour palette is also the product of the various encounters and exchanges with different crafts culture during centuries of trade and colonial expansion. The story behind the introduction of silk as an exclusive material for kente cloths is a telling example of the way in which history of trade and the movement of people and goods, have shaped local crafts production. Since the 16thcentury, different European countries traded their goods in order acquire precious ivory and gold. Since exotic textiles were a popular luxury item, the Portuguese, and later the Dutch, French, Danish and British, would import and trade items such as precious Indian and Chinese silk fabrics along the Guinea coast, in exchange for gold and slaves. Local craftsmen would unravel the silk fabrics and re-use the individual threads in their weavings. This is how Chinese silk was introduced into the very fabric of kente cloth.

These are just a few examples of the different threads that make up what is now considered as ‘authentic’ kente cloth. Time, trade and travel created a textile craft out of mixed origins; pluriform in its pattern design, its material technique, and its cultural history. Appropriating it as a symbol to represent the whole of the Black community, not only flattens the cultural richness and historical complexity of the textile, it also reduces a vast and immensely heterogenous group of people into one identity.