Source collection The Veranda of Floating Threads
When a new Anthropological Department was set up in Ashanti in the 1920s, R. S. Rattray, an Africanist from Oxford, was charged with the task of re-searching the law and constitution of Ashanti, to assist the colonial administrators in ruling the region. Rattray set out to do detailed and voluminous research on Ashanti religion, customs law, art, beliefs, folktales, and proverbs. His personal contact with the people of Ashanti afforded him an intimate knowledge of their culture, which is reflected in his thoughtful and nuanced writing on them. In his seminal work of 1927 ‘Religion and Art in Ashanti’ these blue and white cotton Warp samples and succeeding coloured silks were included.
AFEVO: Home Handweave of the Ewe is a research focused on the textile collection of the Blakhud Museum of Klikor (Ghana). Performed by many traditional weavers of Klikor, who decided to donate samples of their own cloth to the Museum. Exactly 100 pieces were listed, simply following the number of their own digital photo. Cloth name, weaver’s name, year of production, meaning and history were also recorded.The VIRTUAL-STITCH TOUR gives a survey of the cloths as they are stitched together. That’s indeed the real target of any kente weaving, as the rhythm of the woven strips is fully displayed only when Single becomes Pattern, a suggestion to recognise links between weaving, music, dance and (obviously) religion in Ewe culture.
The Ashanti were extremely conservative in their taste in textile fabrics ; this is shown by the fact that rather than wear cloths of European design which offended their aesthetic taste, they would (in the case of silk cloths) sometimes actually unravel and reweave the imported manufactured article to suit their own taste. Most of the designs in the 1927 Warp sample overview of Robert Sutherland Rattray are recognized standard patterns. They do not nearly exhaust all the different varieties. While the designs of these are more or less standardized, the names of the designs in some cases appear to vary in different localities.
Warps may be either one solid color or striped, and it is the composition of the warp and the color and variation of the stripes the give the cloth its name. Kente cloths are purchased as much for their names as for their beauty. Warp stripe names are derived from a variety of sources, including famous people, especially chiefs and queen mothers; natural phenomena; historical events; and proverbs.
The entire warp will consist of approximately 300 strings which are threaded through two heddles (asatia and asanan) and a comb (kyeree). The basic unit for warping up is a count of four threads, called ‘oba’ by the Ashanti, and the trained warper – a seperate occupation to the weaver – will know by heart the count required for the arrangement of the colours to create a specified background warp pattern.
Kente strip cloth is generally comprised of a pattern of blocks that create a striped or checkered pattern when sewn together. Whereas the warp threads run vertical and create a canvas, it is the weft-faced patterns with more detailed inlays that truly make kente cloth spectacular. These coordinating blocks also have names of their own and the weft patterns are called adwen. Unlike the patterning of the lengthwise warp threads, most weft designs (woven across the warp threads) are named after objects—knives, bellows, combs, hats, etc. Also unlike most warp patterns, weft-faced designs tend to resemble their names.
Brigitte Menzel’s field research on Asante weaving in the 1960s, sadly largely unpublished, remains the only in depth investigation of the tradition, and she was able to collect a group of cloths of unrivalled quality. Most of these are in the Berlin Museum where she worked for many years (others are in the Textilmuseum, Krefeld, and the Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, Leiden.) Small black and white images of these cloths and many others are published in Menzel’s three volume catalogue Textilien aus WestAfrika (Berlin 1972).
According to Kwame Adapa the Akan weaving patterns Rattray observed and which he meticulously recorded in his book ‘Religion and Art in Ashanti’ embed the so-called Fibonacci numbers and suggest a level of fractal encoding which may point to this knowledge having come from ancient Kemet (Egypt), Nubia or beyond. Adapa finds identical weaving patterns created by the people of Fiji, the Marshall Islands, the Samoans as well as the Peruvians (Inca culture), the Maori and the Navajo and suggests some of the number sequences in the non-triangular portion of Akan weaving designs can be linked together in a musical way.
To demystify drafting, which many textiles students perceive as “difficult to learn” led to adoption of the quasi-experimental approach to interpret selected Kente motifs to demonstrate the process of drafting to students of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana. Using the draft as instructional resource, the students were guided to translate drafts they had made into woven Kente stole on the broadloom. The focus of Structural Patterns in Asante Kente was to bridge the gap between indigenous hand weaving and weaving as it is taught in the formal educational system.
KLIKOR ICON is a woven encyclopedia of about 200 traditional and modern designs of “Adanu Kete”, that’s the patterned cloth of the Ewe. Woven by 15 Ewe weavers at Blakhud Research Centre in Klikor, Ghana, each design in the cloth is recorded and each symbol is explained (01 HEDZEDE KPLE TODODO - Rising and setting sun: “The rising and setting sun , which comes quicker?”; 02 KPAKPA - Dove: The dove is a sacred bird of the Ewe in Klikor; 03 XEXI - Umbrella: “An open umbrella is not taken to a grove”. Humility counts if one must be reformed; 04 HLETIVI - Star: The Ewe believe in destiny, fate, and mission. So that people are born under different “stars”, which determine their destiny or life performance. The star is therefore an important image or symbol used in weaving).
There are four categories of weaving for strip cloth: Ahwepan (plain weave), Topreko (single-pick), Faprenu (double pick) and Asasia (six heddle weave). The most common of these is topreko which creates the popular kente variation by using two heddles. The asasia weave is the most complex and also the rarest, creating a necessity for more heddles, a very complex and time consuming operation.
Traditionally limited to the burgundy, green and apricot of the Asante royal court, the colors of Kente cloth today can have a hallucinatory intensity. Designs range from an all-over grid pattern in yellow, orange, blue and white to one that alternates blocks of reds and greens with panels of black with white stripes. Richly somber funerary mourning cloths have restrained patterns of black and red. Kente patterns are subtle and complex, and suggest jazz, abstract art and quilts. What is vital to know is the meanings that are associated with the colors, like Black with Maturity, Blue with Love and Peace and Green with Harvest, Health, and Rejuvenation.
Tradionally, each strip is begun and concluded with a group, or head, or five designs, of which Nnwotoa, “snail’s bottom’ and Babadua, named for a common tree of Ashanti, are the most commonly used. Less expensive weaves will have heads composed of Asyem (resembling the skin upon which the Asantehene rests his feet while sitting in state) and Nsatia, ‘fingers’. The five designs are always arranged so that in weaves some designs are repeated while Babadua apprears once, whereas on adjecent strips various designs appear once and Babadua are repeated.
Adwinwasa literally means “all motifs are used up.” According to legend, this cloth was an attempt to weave an utterly unique specimen for the Asantehene by filling every area with a design—thereby exhausting the weaver’s repertoire of motifs. Though it’s popularly believed that each block of Adwinasa cloth contains a different weft design, it’s actually only necessary that each block display some kind of weft design. Held in high regard, Adwinasa cloth symbolizes royalty, creative ingenuity, perfection and superior craftsmanship.
What distinguishes traditional Ewe weaving from that of the Ashanti is a lightness and improvisational quality, the use of cotton rather than silk or rayon and the introduction of floating weft patterns of a figurative nature into some of the warp-faced sections of a strip. Their palette is more varied and a softer tone is frequently achieved by twisting together two colors of yarn for a tweedy effect. The Ewe have never united to form an autocratic kingdom. Not constrained by the limitations of a court-dominated social order the Ewe strip weavers were able to express their creative and technical skills in cloth with imagination, artistry and ingenuity that are without equal.
Originally restricted in the 17th century to Asante royalty, today kente is the garb of choice in Ghana (and other African countries) for festivals, weddings and ceremonial occasions. Over the course of the 20th century, kente has moved far beyond the borders of Ghana. The brightly patterned cloth has come to convey a powerful message of African unity and its influence has spread across the Atlantic, becoming a political symbol for the Pan African unity movement of the 1950s and ‘60s Black Nationalism in the U.S. As a signifier of ethnic pride, it has become part of the popular design lexicon, appearing on everything from neckties to McDonald’s cups.
Kente cloth became especially symbolic when Ghana gained independence in 1957 and the country’s president and strong proponent of Pan-africanism, Kwame Nkrumah, wore it often. The Republic of Ghana presented the United Nations with a kente, the traditional hand woven-cloth of Ghana in 1960. Executed in pure silk, this Kente cloth measures 6 by 3,65 meter. It’s the largest known kente cloth, called ‘tikoro nko agyina’, which means, one head does not constitute a council.
This large color poster, Kente Is More Than a Cloth: History and Significance of Ghana’s Kente Cloth is prepared by Prof. Kwaku Ofori-Ansa. The poster includes sections on: Overview; Names of Cloths and Their Symbolic Meanings; Names of Motifs and Their Symbolic Meanings; Parts of a Cloth; Symbolic Meanings of Colors; Judging the Quality of Cloths; Uses of Kente; Weaving Materials; and a select bibliography.
On a liar’s cloth or ‘nkontompo n’tama’ three narrow warp stripes run along one selvedge of each cloth strip and at regular intervals, cross the strip as a weft, before continuing along the strip as warp stripes at the other edge. The technique used to create this effect is unique to Asante weaving and today known only to a few master weavers. It involves keeping each of the three small groups of warp threads used to create the three alternating stripes at a different length and tension to the main body of the warp using a set of small wax ball weights which are hooked onto the threads and hang below the warp as it is woven. “Anyone who says they can weave it is a liar”.
As a symbol BABADUA means strenght, toughness, resilienty, power and superiority. The babadua tree was used for building fences and thatch roof frames, because it was particularly strong and resilient. In the past, before an asafo (the militia) went to war, it is said that a pile of babadua would be placed on top of a dug-out and a number of the asafo members stood on the pile. If the pile did not break, that signified that they had enough fighting men. The use of this motif at the edge of the woven cloth gives tensile strength to the cloth and prevents unravelling or fraying.
The wearing of cloths as ritual attire is evident in teh Akan, as well as Ewe cultures, and the ways in which they are worn demonstrate the place of the bearer in raltion to the living and the dead. The cloth can be slippes off the shoulder and tucked into the waist as the suppilcant greets or dances before a royal personage or senior.
Before the arrival of colored silk the Ashanti cloths were made of cotton, patterned prdominantly in blue and white. Now these cotton cloths are associated with those outside the royal circle, or were sported by the chiefs as a sign of respect on ceremonial occasions. The sewing together of strips of cloth with a variety of patterns creates a textile without a specific title; having no predominant warp pattern, this type of cloth is known as MMABAN, meaning mixed.
Proverbs reveal the thought, customs, mores and beliefs of a culture. When these are expressed as artistic stylizations, a second dimension of understanding becomes possible. Ashanti weavers have skillfully united these two cultural attributes, reinforcing their own perceptual creativity. The proverb Dea emmaa da eno ne dea yennhunu na yennte bi da (What is novel is what we have not seen and heard before) for example, symbolizes knowledge, creativity, novelty, and innovation.
The cloths woven in the nineteenth century for the court of the Asantehene, the king of the Asante empire were probably the ultimate achievement of the West African narrow-strip weavers art. The raw material for this artistry came from Europe in the form of silk fabrics which were carefully unpicked to obtain thread which could then be re-woven into narrow-strip cloth on looms that utilised two, and in some cases even three, sets of heddles to multiply the complexity of design. The king’s weavers were and still are grouped in a village called Bonwire near the Asante capital of Kumase.
Most designs are produced by combining two distinct decorative techniques. The first, supplementary weft float, involves the addition of extra weft threads that do not form part of the basic structure of the cloth. Instead they ‘float’ across sections of the ground weave. Rows of these wefts are arranged to form designs such as triangles, wedges, hour-glass shapes etc. The second effect is to create solid blocks of coloured thread across the cloth strip entirely concealing the warp. This effect is achieved by the use of a technical innovation unique to the weaving of southern Ghana, namely the use of a second set of heddles that has the effect of bunching together groups of warp threads allowing them to be hidden by the weft.