What is Kente?
Kente is a fabric made from silk and cotton, interwoven in strips. It originates from the Akan tribe in Ghana, West Africa, and is made in Akan lands like the Ashanti (also known as Asante) Kingdom and Akans in Ivory Coast. It’s also worn by other groups who have taken inspiration from the region, including the Ewe people who were originally under Ashanti rule.
What Does Kente Look Like?
Kente is instantly recognizable due to its multicolored patterns, bright colors, geometric shapes and bold, dazzling designs. It’s a royal and sacred cloth that’s traditionally worn during important times. It’s considered to be a cloth of Akan kings and is held in extremely high esteem.
There are lots of different patterns and designs that have certain cultural significance to different regions of Africa. Cloths are chosen for their colors and patterns, usually identified by the patterns found present in the lengthwise thread of the fabric.
Where Does the Name Kente Come From?
The word kente comes from the word kenten, which means basket in the Akan dialect, Asante. In the local region, kente is referred to as nwentoma which means ‘woven cloth’. The names of different types of kente are usually taken from historical events, proverbs, literature, achievements, leading figures and the natural world - there isn’t always a correlation between the name and the way that the fabric looks.
History of Kente
The origin of kente is steeped in history and legend. The most popular legend that explains how kente came to be originates from the Ashanti people in Ghana. The legend tells how two young men, named Ota Karaban and Kwaku Ameyaw, watched a spider weaving its web and were amazed by the designs that sparkled in it in the moonlight.
The spider, called Ananse, showed them how to weave in exchange for completing some favors. Their new-found skill was reported to the first ruler of the Ashanti kingdom and he adopted the cloth as a royal cloth reserved for special occasions.
Kente was originally used by royalty only, and though this is no longer the case, it’s still associated with wealth, status and sophistication. It’s also found in shrines to mark spiritual power.
How Is Kente Made?
Kente is woven on a horizontal strip loom, which produces a narrow band of cloth about four inches wide. Several of these strips are carefully arranged and hand-sewn together to create a cloth of the desired size. Most kente weavers are men.
Weaving involves the crossing of a row of parallel threads called the warp (threads running vertically) with another row called the weft (threads running horizontally). A horizontal loom, constructed with wood, consists of a set of two, four or six heddles (loops for holding thread), which are used for separating and guiding the warp threads.
These are attached to treadles (foot pedals) with pulleys that have spools of thread inserted in them. The pulleys can be used to move the warp threads apart. As the weaver divides the warp threads, he uses a shuttle (a small wooden device carrying a bobbin, or small spool of thread) to insert the weft threads between them. These various parts of the loom, like the motifs in the cloth, all have symbolic significance and are accorded a great deal of respect.
By alternating colors in the warp and weft, a weaver can create complex patterns, which in kente cloth are valued for both their visual effect and their symbolism. Patterns can exist vertically (in the warp), or horizontally (in the weft), or both.
Different Types of Kente
Different colors and patterns in kente can have different significance or meaning behind it. Here are some of the colors and what they represent in kente fabric:
- Black: maturation, intensified spiritual energy
- Blue: peacefulness, harmony and love
- Green: vegetation, planting, harvesting, growth, spiritual renewal
- Gold: royalty, wealth, high status, glory, spiritual purity
- Grey: healing and cleansing rituals; associated with ash
- Maroon: the color of mother earth; associated with healing
- Pink: associated with the female essence of life; a mild, gentle aspect of red
- Purple: associated with feminine aspects of life; usually worn by women
- Red: political and spiritual moods; bloodshed; sacrificial rites and death.
- Silver: serenity, purity, joy; associated with the moon
- White: purification, sanctification rites and festive occasions
- Yellow: preciousness, royalty, wealth, fertility, beauty
Other types of kente patterns have been created which showcase an idea or concept:
- Obaakofoo Mmu Man pattern - symbolizes democratic rule
- Emaa Da - symbolizes novel creativity and knowledge from experience
- Sika Fre Mogya - symbolizes responsibility to share monetary success with one's relations.
How to Wear Kente?
Men and women wear traditional kente cloth differently. On average, a men’s size cloth measures 24 strips wide, making it about 8 feet wide and 12 feet long. Men usually wear one piece wrapped around the body, leaving the right shoulder and hand uncovered, in a toga-like style.
Women may wear either one large piece or a combination of two or three pieces of varying sizes ranging from 5-12 strips, averaging 6 feet long. Age, marital status, and social standing may determine the size and design of the cloth an individual would wear.
Modern kente-inspired clothing can be worn by anyone in a variety of different styles.
Modern African Kente
Previously kente cloth could not be cut. This is no longer the case and kente can be sewn into other forms like dresses, shirts or shoes. Printed versions of kente are available too, making the traditional patterns more accessible to everyone around the world.
Kente cloth is worn in the United States for a variety of cultural and celebratory purposes. People wear them for graduation, Juneteenth, Kwanzaa and other holidays to connect with their African heritage.