Kente Cloth: Definition, History & Designs

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Kente cloth is one of the most important fabrics in West Africa. In this lesson, we are going to explore the history and significance of this cloth, and see how it is produced.

Kente Cloth

Every now and then, a textile becomes so important that it is made part of a nation's identity. We can think of Japanese kimonos, Egyptian linens, or Roman togas as examples. So, what's the definitive textile of West Africa? That would be kente cloth.

Kente cloth is a very important fabric of Ghana
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Kente cloth is a woven fabric produced by the Asante and Ewe people of Ghana. This brightly colored and intricately woven textile has grown to become a symbol of West African (and particularly Ghanaian) pride and identity. It's much more than just cloth.

History of Kente Cloth

Weaving is one of the oldest art forms in the world, and it's been part of West African cultures for millennia. Kente cloth, however, is defined by some very unique weaving techniques. Some scholars think that the basis for Kente cloth entered West Africa from Sudan, traveling along trade routes across the continent in the 16th century. It was likely introduced as a time-intensive fabric produced only for royalty.

In West Africa, however, this technique was modified for cheaper and easier production, making it available to the masses. True kente cloth as we know it may have been developed sometime in the 17th century. According to tradition, the art form was actually developed in the Ghanaian town of Bonwire by two brothers, Kurugu and Ameyaw. One day, the brothers watched a spider spin its web and decided to try and make something so beautiful themselves. They gathered black and white fibers from a raffia tree, and wove the first kente cloth.

It's worth noting that not only is Bonwire still one of the most important weaving centers in all of West Africa for kente cloth, but this art form is still predominantly practiced by men. That makes it unique from weaving arts in other parts of Africa, where the craft is generally maintained by women.

Technique

So, what makes kente cloth so special? This fabric is actually produced on a special loom, modified to create narrow strips of cloth. The weaver creates long strips of fabric that are about four inches wide, working intricate geometric patterns into the cloth as they go. While the oldest kente cloth was originally black and white, weavers found ways to produce a range of bright colors over time, all of which are used today.

Kente cloth
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Once the weaver has created a number of long and narrow strips, those strips are sewn together to produce the full-sized cloth. So, kente cloth is unique in its use of special looms, as well as the combination of weaving and sewing.

Styles and Designs

What characterizes kente cloth to most people, however, is its design. Kente cloths are produced with flat, bright colors arranged in geometric shapes. The effect can be dramatic and visually stunning, but there are very important variations that define the meaning of each cloth to the wearer.

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