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.
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