Ghanaian legend has it that two young men, inspired by the beauty of a spiderweb, tried to recreate that same beauty using thread. That is the mythical and magical origin story of the world-famous Kente cloth. Kente cloth originated among the Asante and Ewe tribes in Ghana. Since its creation, Kente cloth has spread far and wide with many African nations taking inspiration from Kente and using it within their own weaving traditions. Originally, Kente was worn by royalty but today, you’ll find many different groups of people who weave Kente cloth and use it as a symbol not only of Ghanaian pride but of African pride as well.
What is Kente Cloth Made From?
Kente cloth is traditionally handwoven and made from silk. Contemporary Kente is woven from a combination of cotton, wool, silk and synthetic fibres which adds a sheen to Kente cloth. However, many African brands are still committed to using organic fibres like Kente Gentlemen, whose products like the Donna Crop Top, are made from organic cotton. The use of Kente has also been diversified, so it’s now not only used for traditional garments but also for dresses, suits and jackets.
How is Kente Cloth Made?
Traditionally, Kente cloth is handwoven on a horizontal wooden loom. Yarn and threads of different colours are then woven into vibrant strips that are about one and a half to two metres long and eight to twelve centimetres. These strips are then sewn together to create beautiful and intricate fabrics that are used in garments. Many luxury African brands still use traditional techniques to create Kente cloth like the label Jermaine Bleu, which makes the handwoven Remi Kente Suit.
The Meaning of Kente Cloth
Kente came from the word ‘Kenten’. It’s a term in the Asante language that means ‘basket’. The colours used in a Kente cloth design also have their own specific meaning. The meaning of some common colours include:
- Gold: status, wealth and serenity
- Yellow: Like gold, yellow is associated with royalty and wealth
- Green: Renewal and the green aspects of nature.
- Blue: Peace, harmony and pure spirit.
- Red: Blood of ancestors, passion and death
- Orange: Joy and wealth.
- Black: Forging bonds with ancestors, heritage and spirituality.
- White: Festivity and purity.
Some Kente clothes can also have particular designs, whose patterns represent one’s heritage and identity. There are also design staples within the culture of Kente cloth weaving. There are over 350 known Kente designs, each with their own meaning. For example the ‘Obi nkye obi kwan mu si’ pattern. This translates to ‘to err is human’ and symbolises tolerance, forgiveness, reconciliation and patience. It is linked to the idea of seeking reconciliation when relationships sour, for you may be the one asking for forgiveness tomorrow.
The diversity and meaning of patterns changes throughout Africa. Even within Ghana, the Northern population had their own distinct style of Kente cloth consisting of bolder stripes and more geometric patterns. This version of Kente is alive and well in contemporary art and fashion. Boyedoe, a Ghanaian fashion brand, uses handwoven Northern Ghanaian Kente in their jackets and other pieces. In modern times, many African designers and Black-owned businesses have incorporated contemporary elements into Kente designs that reflect the present while honouring the past.
How Kente Became an African Symbol
Kente cloth quickly spread throughout Africa, with countries like the Ivory Coast or Côte D’Ivoire, combining elements of Kente with their traditional weaving styles from the Baule and Gouro textiles. Weavers from the Bondoukou region of the Ivory Coast became renowned for their clothes, which came to rival the Kente woven by the Asante and Ewe.
Kente itself gained international recognition via the first Ghanaian president, Kwame Nkrumah, who would wear Ashanti Kente cloth at events. He was one of the first African leaders from the continent and his use of Kente cloth was often used as a symbol of African identity by those from diaspora populations. Kente cloth gained even more international popularity when Nkrumah gifted famous boxer, Muhammed Ali, Kente cloth which Ali wore during a visit to Ghana in 1964. Other visitors to Ghana have also worn Kente cloth, such as ex-First Lady, Hilary Clinton and ex-US President, Bill Clinton in 1998.
The origin of Kente cloth and its international appeal made it popular among African diaspora communities and has become a symbol of African pride during important events. For example, many African-American students wear a Kente stole to graduation. In short, Kente cloth has become a connection between African heritage and the continent all over the globe.
Use of Kente Cloth in Fashion
From traditional stoles and robes to contemporary fashion and homeware. Kente cloth has become part of the everyday aspect of African life. Kente is also worn by both men and women and many African fashion brands have incorporated it into contemporary fashion. Examples of Kente cloth in fashion include ATTO TETTEH’s Cotton Pants and NYNY Ryke’s Quilted Kente Coat.
A famous piece of African clothing that incorporates Kente cloth is the dashiki, which also has its origins in West African culture. The dashiki, a loose tunic, can also incorporate Kente cloth into its design like the Afua Dashiki Dress. The beauty of Kente cloth is in its versatility and ability for African designers and creatives to use it to express themselves in relation to their culture.
However, on the other hand, Kente cloth has also been heavily commercialised: its roots forgotten and its intricate history are ignored by calling Kente a ‘tribal pattern’. Traditional Kente designs have been registered and copyrighted to continue the respectful reproduction of Kente. Marketplace platforms specialising in ethical and sustainable African fashion also have a vital role to play in supporting traditional African designs and methods.ADJOAA is proud to be a platform that is dedicated to supporting African designers and Black-owned businesses. Our platform includes many creative luxury fashion labels from Africa, including Ghanaian labels and designers from other African nations like Kente Gentlemen, based in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, who specialise in continuing African traditions like Kente cloth. Every purchase from an African fashion brand on ADJOAA directly supports a small and independent African fashion brand. It is a way of showing appreciation not only for the culture but for those who create it.