West African Kente Cloth

Identified with the Akan people, its colors have specific meanings

Ewe kente stripes, Ghana

ZSM / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Kente is a brightly colored, banded material and is the most widely known cloth produced in Africa. Although kente cloth is now identified with the Akan people in West Africa, and particularly the Asante Kingdom, the term originates with the neighboring Fante people. Kente cloth is closely related to Adinkra cloth, which has symbols stenciled into cloth and is associated with mourning.​

History

Kente cloth is made from thin strips about 4 centimeters thick woven together on narrow looms, typically by men. The strips are interlaced to form a fabric that is usually worn wrapped around the shoulders and waist like a toga: The garment is also known as kente. Women wear two shorter lengths to form a skirt and bodice.

Originally made from white cotton with some indigo patterning, kente cloth evolved when silk arrived with Portuguese traders in the 17th century. Fabric samples were pulled apart for the silken thread, which was then woven into the kente cloth. Later, when skeins of silk became available, more sophisticated patterns were created, although the high cost of silk meant they were only available to Akan royalty.

Mythology and Meaning

Kente has its own mythology—claiming the original cloth was taken from the web of a spider—and related superstitions such as no work can be started or completed on a Friday and that mistakes require an offering to be made to the loom. In kente cloth, colors are significant, conveying these meanings:

  • Blue: love
  • Green: growth and energy
  • Yellow (gold): wealth and royalty
  • Red: violence and anger
  • White: goodness or victory
  • Grey: shame
  • Black: death or old age

Royalty

Even today, when a new design is created, it must first be offered to the royal house. If the king declines to take the pattern, it can be sold to the public. Designs worn by Asante royalty may not be worn by others.

Pan-African Diaspora

As one of the prominent symbols of African arts and culture, Kente cloth has been embraced by the broader African diaspora (which means people of African descent wherever they might live). Kente cloth is particularly popular in the United States among African Americans and can be found on all types of clothing, accessories, and objects. These designs replicate registered Kente designs but are often mass-produced outside of Ghana with no recognition or payment going to the Akan craftsmen and designers, which author Boatema Boateng has argued represents a significant loss of income to Ghana.

Sources