Ceremony in Aburi, Ghana. Kings wearing rich Kente cloth walking in state at Odwira Festval in Ghana. Photo credit: Shutterstock/Yaayi

Kente cloth. Woven for majesties’ past, refashioned for the future

9 mins read

One of the most known African textiles, Kente cloth carries such a rich history, but now, the authentic fabrics and its weaving industry are pushing for the Ghanaian material to boom in contemporary fashion.

Hand woven Kente cloth has a high octane visual impact. A distinctively Ghanaian textile, it also carries royal roots. Given to the first ruler of the Asante Empire about 1,000 B.C.E., it still adorns nobility over a thousand years later. All the while, traveling with its diaspora

In the US, wearing a Kente stole remains a majestic moment for thousands of African American college graduates each year. During ceremonies, they drape it around their necks, or over the shoulder, as a symbol of their African heritage. 

As a sign of solidarity during the height of the George Floyd protests, Democratic congressional members wore vibrant Kente shawls as they knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds at the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall. While the members were criticized for the gesture being more mockery than a show of solidarity, Kente holds further significance and potential. 

During the global pandemic, the production of handwoven Kente declined significantly. Weavers  struggled to obtain cotton from northern Ghana and naturally derived dyes.Coupled with rising production costs and flattened demand at that time, the industry faced near obliteration.With its historical significance, and carrying the confidence to re fashion itself for the global market, will Kente be  competitive in the global fashion arena? Or, will it be relegated to weddings, sports outfits, and other commemorative events? As the biro pen eclipsed the fountain pen, maybe its production will be overtaken by the cheaper, imported prints.

The Roots

Woman in Kente ceremonial dress dances in a ceremony. Photo credit: Unsplash/ Emmanuel Offei

Developed in the 17th century, Kente cloth production is just one example of  a rich weaving tradition that spans over a millennium. A moth defiant fabric, the original textile was made from the raffia tree, but now is hand-spun on looms only male craftsmen are allowed to operate.

Nana Kwaku Asebere from the Bonwire Kente Weaving Centre in Juaben, a Ejisu-Juaben Municipal District town in the Ashanti region of Ghana, expounds. “Kente was first worn in a toga like fashion by Royals among the Ashanti [tribe]…anyone who wears Kente is highly honoured.”At engagements, weddings and baby naming ceremonies, Kente continues to be passed down.It may even be given as gifts to family members at funerals and is is considered a tangible symbol connecting heritage and identity.

US-based- Ghanaian lawyer and professor, Dr. Amowi Phillips explains how Ghanaians revere Kente’s Royal roots. “The Asantehene has royal weavers making Kente patterns exclusive to him which lesser chiefs and ordinary people may not wear,” she tells Ark Republic. 

 Totaling a ten-stage process, the production of Kente goes from the design and naming, to actual beating of the material. In all, the textile takes about three weeks to make. The results are sharp geometric lines that govern the patterns. Each bold motif weaves vivid shades into intricate designs. The design may be plain like Ewe people’s Kente, or patterned, Akan Kente. a stunning kaleidoscope of purple, green, gold, red, orange, black and every shade in between, commands attention.

“[W]ithin the Akan traditional rulership, there are status and symbolic protocols for wearing Kente. For example there are types of Kente for particular ceremonies requiring color and pattern specifications,” says Dr. Phillips.

For the monarchy, the markings were more than artistic inspiration. They operated as sigils and signifiers. In the textures are sacred representations of deities. Even prayers, protection magic and high moral principles are found in their ancient writings like the treasured Adinkra writing system. Kente cloth is such a revered customary vesture, it is passed on from one generation to another, ensuring that it remains a living tradition.  

To Ghanaians, Kente is a defining status symbol. David Opoku Mensah, a U.S.-based fashion designer stresses, “Kente features significantly in the larger African traditional cultural system.” Mensah, a Ghanaian who founded Á-Côté Collections further explains, “The intricate weaving, style, colours and durability of the cloth tell a story of African ingenuity, uniqueness and originality…its core significance is evident in the very wefts and warps which make up the cloth: a people woven in unity with a steady resolve to remain as one.”

Wearing a full length hand woven Kente dress or suit is a chance to step out in distinctive style and bear the weight of just under two kilograms of threaded history. Woven Kente cloth has a tapestry-like feel and connects the wearer  to the weaver and all the processes which made this miracle fabric possible.

It could be argued that  cheaper cotton prints, while vivid and accessible, provide an entree, an avant-goût, for the real thing.

Inspiration of the spider

Equally important to the material, Ghana is also known globally as the home of the trickster storyteller and folklore antihero, “Anansi” the spider. A series of mythical stories around Anansi, a small, but formidable character that was able to outwit its biggest challengers, the spider is central in Asante spiritual systems. 

Miracously, the Anansi traveled with those who were part of the Asante Empire that were yanked into the slave trade. As a result, in places like Jamaica, the Anansi found a home in the folklores of the island because the narratives represented an enslaved people using their cunning and collective actions as key factors in resistance movements. 

Therefore, it is of little surprise that Kente cloth is reported to originate in a spider’s web. According to Bonwire Kente Weaving Centre weaver, Nana Kwaku Asabere, two descendants of Bonwire AyewaKeseɛho, brothers named Opoku Kuragu and Kwakye Ameyaw, went hunting in 1678. During their excursion, they  spotted a spider spinning its web. Further observation inspired them to eventually experiment with weaving a local fabric called Nwin-Ntoma meaning woven cloth. Once completed, they showed their end product to the then Bonwire chief, Nana Bobie Ansa. Hence, the prototype of Kente cloth was born, inspired by the delicate weaving of a spider.

Today, school visits to centres throughout the West African nation are standard. A critical part of pedagogy,  the tours  are seen as ensuring young Ghanaians develop respect for and pride in their national garb.

1. Weaver demonstrating the traditional method in making the textile. 2. Students visiting the Mother Smith International School at the Bonwire Weaving Centre in Kumasi, Ghana. Photo credit: Courtesy of Frank Agyapong. 3. Rev. Frank Agyapong showing how kente is traditionally worn to students at the Mother Smith International School at the Bonwire Weaving Centre, in Kumasi, Ghana. Photo credit: Courtesy of Frank Agyapong. 4. Back to the future design uses modern fashion with traditional Kente textile. Photo credit: Courtesy of D’Acote Collections. 5. Monica Brown wearing a waistcoat from Ghanaian Kente cloth that is over 30 years old. Photo credit: Jesse Gerald. 6. Nana Kwaku Asebere, a kente weaver, explains textiles to students at the Bonwire Weaving Centre in Kumasi, Ghana. Photo credit: Courtesy of Frank Agyapong. 7. African American stole for graduation. Photo credit: Unsplash/Sir Manuel. 8. Student shows his traditional kente clothes at at the Mother Smith International School at the Bonwire Weaving Centre, in Kumasi, Ghana. Photo credit: Courtesy of Frank Agyapong. 9. Traditional Ghanaian wedding. Photo credit: Courtesy of Johnnie Boeteng.

Children are the future, HBCUs are part of Kente’s past

For generations, children are taught the historical and cultural significance of their national trapping of sorts. Frank Agyapong, a teacher at the Mother Smith International School, Kumasi, accompanied a group of children to the Bonwire Weaving Centre in September 2021. He confirmed the curiosity and thrill of his young learners at the Centre who met and questioned the weavers. While there, they were introduced to all the stages of the traditional Kente weaving process.

Of another fascination is the gravitation of the Kente-wearing tradition for U.S. Black college students, and those in the African diaspora. Though there were multiple nations that were forcibly transported to the Americas and the Caribbean during the slave trade, what makes Kente such a special tapestry?

A 2015 report recorded approximately 235,000 Ghana-born migrant residents. Ghanaians were the first wave of Africans to migrate to the West after the American and Caribbean slave trade. Starting with a trickle in the early 1930s when elite West Africans such as Kwame Nkrumah, expanded their studies. While in the U.S., Nkrumah attended Lincoln University, located in Pennsylvania, it is one of the oldest historically Black universities. 

By the 1960s, Ghanaians, Ethiopians, Kenyans and Nigerians were settling in as the first mass wave of Black internationals. From his studies abroad, Nkrumah became politicized. Meeting thinkers such as W.E.B. DuBois, Nkrumah employed a Pan-African agenda when he returned to his homeland. Eventually, he became the first Black president of an independent, post-colonial Ghana.

The presence of Ghana remains. When Kente was introduced in the 1980s, albeit, distributed mostly in Chinese knockoffs or cheaper fabrics. Simultaneously, the promulgation of Kente occurred as U.S. Blacks began to adopt the name African American.  Now, it is quite common for HBCU graduates to wear Kente striped motifs and stoles, but Black graduates and professors in general don the intricate textile. Even the Georgetown University basketball team in the 1994 to 1995 season sported Kente inspired uniforms in an effort to demonstrate pride in their African heritage.

Today’s fashioning of Kente in both West Africa and its diaspora has become more expansive, thus generating more ideas on how Kente can continue to be a coveted textile. 1. Kente used to reflect the mixed of modern urban culture and tradition. Photo credit: Unsplash/Patrick Amofah. 2. Simple black dress with a twist. Photo credit: Unsplash/Ransford Quaye. 3. Couple show off their wedding attire in Ghana. Photo credit: Unsplash/Patrick Amofah. 4. Kente has even been used by men and women of the Christian cloth. Photo credit: Unsplash/Nana Yaw Otoo.

A world and production under threat

However, opinions vary on the future of this labour intensive, historic textile whose integrity is currently battling global shortages. Associated manufacturing risks remain. The impact of which produces material dearth and  endangers the livelihood of the Kente weaving fraternity. In the face of falling behind on orders, some weavers in Ghana are reported to have abandoned their chosen profession to become farmers.

Mensah explains that “certain colours of threads for weaving are in short supply making weavers handicapped in weaving to customer specification. The lockdown could have nearly collapsed the business of weaving Kente pieces, putting many weavers out of work.”

On the other hand, Phillips takes a different view. In spite of these clear challenges, she is convinced that there is space in the market for both hand woven Kente and the print variety. She observes that “the widespread use of the print in the tourist market has not affected demand for genuine woven Kente”. Of another important note,  the role of the internet in promoting sales of both. 

Due to the digital age’s reframing fashion, especially as members of the African diaspora are piercing the veils of mainstream, Phillips sees Kente’s couture potential as being driven by the inventiveness and  creativity of Ghanaian designers at home and abroad. Historically, Ghanaian designers have been unafraid to re-imagine the plain and patterned types of Kente and fuse them with other forms and techniques. Mensah is one example. 

Through his D’ Acote fashion house, Mensah is currently fusing Kente cloth and embroidery, with bold results. He is convinced of Kente’s potential to penetrate the global fashion market as the “royal throne” of traditional textiles. While Mensah works to maintain and expand Kente, he must do it in an industry that is known for stealing then reappropriating the wares from indigenous and traditional cultures. Added to the frustrations, the patterned strips of silk and cotton also contend against cheaper, imported Kente prints. 

Indeed, one 1950s and 60s trailblazer in Ghanaian fashion, Juliana Kweifio-Okai, aka Chez Julie, was determined to revolutionise Ghanaian historical dress. According to The Graphic, Chez Julie challenged accepted forms of wearing Kente cloth upon her return to Ghana from Paris in 1961 by “creating tailored garments that were simultaneously globally inspired, yet distinctly Ghanaian”. 

The viability of the Kente weaving industry may very well rest on the creativity and adaptability of Ghanaian designers as they fight to stay relevant and accessible in the global fashion industry.

Back in Ghana, Nana Kwaku Asebere, is concerned about these economic threats, citing reduced sales of authentic Kente. Phillips contends “ authentic Kente and its imported lookalikes occupy different spaces in the fashion market”. Yet and still, Nana Kwaku Asebere is encouraged by the young people in Bonwire, who continue to come in to learn to weave in their leisure time and by some government support for weavers. Perhaps the answer lies in educating buyers, particularly those in the African diaspora about these differences and allowing the market to make informed purchase decisions.

Monica D. Brown is a UK-based teaching fellow, media specialist, poet and training consultant.

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Monica D. Brown is a UK-based teaching fellow, media specialist, poet and training consultant. studying in the UK and Paris, she is the first producer of the longest running TV programs, “Hill An’ Gully Ride,” which is still on the air. Selected by the BBC in 2007, to explore her family history took her to Zanzibar and Tanzania, which is chronicled in her book, Journey to Zanzibar. Currently, she teaches media production and English and also operates as a consultant.

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