Kente cloth is probably the most universally recognized of all African fabrics. The word "kente" means basket, and the cloth is so-named because of its resemblance to a woven basket design. The Asante peoples of Ghana and the Ewe of Ghana and Togo weave it on horizontal, narrow-strip, men's treadle looms. Individual strips of kente typically feature alternating segments of warp-faced (yarn extended lengthwise in a loom) stripe patterns with weft-faced (yarn running crosswise) geometric patterns. The woven strips range from three to five inches in width and are sewn together edge-to-edge to produce men's cloths of approximately twelve feet by six feet (twenty-four strips) and women's cloths of six feet by three to four feet (nine to twelve strips). Men's cloths are worn toga style, draped around the body with the left shoulder and arm covered and the right shoulder and arm exposed. Women wear two cloths of different sizes as upper and lower wrappers and often have a third piece as a baby carrier. Queenmothers and more recently other women of stature may wear a single cloth like a man. Regardless, kente is primarily festive dress worn at a variety of annual festivals. It is also used in other traditional contexts as a drum wrapper, a palanquin liner, umbrella fabric, fan and shield covering, amulet casing, and even loincloths. More recently it has been used as a wall hanging in Ghana's Parliament House and in the United Nations. Traditional usage aside, some African and African American scholars still vehemently contend that the use of kente should be restricted to clothing for special occasions.
Weaving in what is now southern Ghana was certainly introduced from the north where strip-woven fabrics are known from at least the eleventh century in the Bandiagara escarpment region of modern Mali. There is considerable debate between the Asante and Ewe over the historical preeminence of their respective traditions. Since both are derived from more northerly practices, the argument is largely irrelevant, but for ethnic pride. Asante kente is held in high regard, and has had by far the more pervasive international significance. As the Asante kingdom rose to power in the late 1600s, the weaving of kente became the exclusive prerogative of the Asante king and his designates. Royal control of this elite fabric persisted for two hundred years, but toward the end of the nineteenth century, kente became increasingly accessible to those who could afford it. Beginning with the conquest of the Asante in 1874 by the British, the history of kente is one of increasing democratization.
Part of the appeal of Asante kente is not just visual. The Asante value the names of various cloths as much as they do their appearance. Cloths are named after their warp stripe patterns and may reference past kings, and queenmothers, historical events (for example, the "Queen comes to Ghana," commemorating Queen Elizabeth's visit in 1961), the plant and animal kingdoms ("little peppers," "guinea fowl feathers"), and other natural phenomena ("gold dust," "the rainbow," "the rising sun"). Traditional proverbs are among the most popular names. One pattern is titled "When you climb a good tree you get a push," that is, if your intentions are good people will help you. Another is called "Kindness does not travel far," referring to the idea that bad deeds attract more attention than good. The above aside, only rarely is there a visual correlation between the cloth's name and its appearance. Although the overall cloth is named after the warp pattern, weft designs are also named. Here there is more visual correspondence with the name, with designs called "comb," "hat," "knife," and "drum" being relatively descriptive. The narrative and indeed intellectual component of kente nomenclature is also undoubtedly important to its popularity in international fashion.
Kente cloth first gained exposure on the international scene with the rise of Kwame Nkrumah and the independence of Ghana in 1957. As the first sub-Saharan African country to regain its independence from colonial domination, Ghana, with Nkrumah as its first President, attained enormous symbolic stature for the rest of Africa and for African Americans—many of whom visited Ghana just before or after independence. This includes such renowned figures as Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, John Biggers, Ralph Bunche, W. E. B. Du Bois, Thur-good Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell, Roy Wilkins, Richard Wright, and Malcolm X, to name only a few. Most, if not all, returned with a piece of kente as a potent connection with their African heritage and identity.
Of equal or greater importance, Kwame Nkrumah visited the United States in 1958 and 1960 with an entourage of kente-adorned Ghanaian dignitaries, who appeared in photographs in many of the most important publications of the day, including Life, Time, and Ebony magazines, and The New York Times and The Washington Post newspapers.
Since Americans were unaccustomed to wrapped and draped clothing, kente was first used primarily as interior decoration—a furniture throw, wall hanging, or even a bedspread. But very quickly kente cloth was tailored into women's blouses, skirts, and dresses and even men's jackets, all of which otherwise followed styles prevalent in the 1960s and 70s. During this period kente wedding attire was especially popular.
The fact that handwoven kente was expensive, difficult to obtain, often uncomfortably warm and heavy, and hard to tailor led to the production of mill-woven rollerprinted cloths in a variety of kente patterns beginning about 1960 and continuing into the twenty-first century. Asante and Ewe weavers naturally object to calling this material "kente," but it has entered popular parlance as such.
Both hand- and mill-woven kente have entered the contemporary fashion world in a variety of forms. Kentecovered jewelry includes earrings, pins, and bracelets, and is still popular, as are a variety of hair ornaments such as headbands, barrettes, and scrunchies. Kente hats, purses, shoes, and sandals can still be purchased in Ghanaian markets, and kente backpacks and book bags are popular tourist items.
While kente fabrics and designs can still be found internationally in a number of contexts, the use of kente in the United States persists, especially at liturgical and academic events where the robes of choirs and church leaders, as well as graduation robes, either incorporate or are augmented by a single strip of kente called a "stole." Since religion and education are of paramount importance to African American communities, it is fitting that kente still plays a profound role in these life-sustaining and family-centered institutions.
Adler, Peter and Nicholas Barnard. African Majesty: The Textile Art of the Ashanti and Ewe. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992. Features a stunning collection of kente.
Lamb, Venice. West African Weaving. London: Duckworth, 1975. Focus is on kente, but locates it in broader West African tradition.
Menzel, Brigitte. Textilien aus Westafrica. 3 vols. Berlin: Museum für Völkerkunde, 1972 and 1973. Catalogue of Berlin collection; Volume 1 has extensive documentation of warp and weft names.
Rattray, Robert S. Religion and Art in Ashanti. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927. First edition is remarkable for its color plates of warp patterns.
Ross, Doran H., ed. Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1998. Comprehensive study, brings history of kente up to the twenty-first century.