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How Ghana’s Kente Cloth Became A Worldwide Phenomenon

Anyone who loves design, whether in fashion or home decor, knows that it’s all about the trends. They come and they go. Some of the best trends never fade, or come in and out of fashion every couple of years. Others leave us shaking our heads as to how they could ever have achieved such popularity in the first place, but then they can make a comeback too. Usually the ebb and flow of trends can be attributed simply to the vagaries of changing tastes. But sometimes a recurring trend is part of something bigger, a cultural shift expressed in a current fashion. And when that happens it is something to remember.

In the 1980s and 90s, Kente cloth was an incredibly popular trend. In both clothing and home decor it was the primary pattern of the popular Afro-centric style of the time. If you watched any number of television shows you likely saw it. If you went to rap concerts or dance clubs you probably wore it. And if you loved African design, you likely loved it too. What you may not have known is that the Kente cloth revolution of the late 20th century was also the global reemergence of a trend that was once unique to the aristocrats of the Ashanti Kingdom in what is present day Ghana, in West Africa. And while the trend which ran its course by the turn of the century shows no sign of returning, it is worth noting that its second act was as much an act of history as of fashion.

Along with Bono, Denkyera, Akwamu, Fante (Fanti) and others, the Ashanti (Asante) Kingdom was one of several polities belonging to the Akan people, whose territory covered much of the coastal area of modern day Ghana, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire . Founded in the 18th century by King Osei Tutu, Ashanti quickly rose to become the largest and most powerful of the gold-producing Akan states . Kente cloth was originally created to display the wealth and sophistication of the royalty as a type of formal regalia reserved only for special occasions (3). Known locally as nwentoma, the word Kente derives from “kenten,” meaning basket – a reference to the basket-like appearance of the weaving and the raffia fabric that was originally used for both. Like so many African cultural artifacts, the weaving of Kente cloth is more than a process of textile manufacture, it is a complex visual language and a ritual in which every component has meaning.

“Weaving apparatus are handmade by the weavers themselves or by others who have specialized in equipment making. A set of weaving apparatus includes the loom, Kofi nsadua (“a Friday-born loom”), which is constructed with wood; a set of two, four or six heddles (asatia, asanan or asasia) attached to treadles with pulleys (awidle) with spools (donowa) inserted into them; shuttles (kurokurowa) with bobbins (awua) inserted into them; beaters (kyeree), and sword stick (tabon). Other supporting equipment are the skein winder (fwirdie) and bobbin winder (dadabena), bobbins holder (menkomena), used for holding bobbins (awua) during warp-laying (nhomatene) and the heddle-making frame (asakuntun or asadua). These apparatus, like motifs in a cloth, have symbolic meanings and are accorded a great deal of respect.” – Midwest Global Group

Beyond the significance attached to the weaving process, every part of the finished cloth contributes to it’s overall meaning. Every color used in a Kente pattern carries with it a specific meaning. These can range from healing and good fortune, to harmony, spiritual healing and love . In all there are more than ten different colors that are common to most Kente cloths, each with a multitude of possible meanings.

Once finished the completed fabric takes on their final identity. There are more than three hundred extant Kente cloth patterns, each with names and meanings. Some, such as Oyokoman cloth, are named for clans. This pattern, which was the first colorful Kente pattern, was worn by Otumfuo Nana Prempeh I, the thirteenth king of Ashanti, who hailed from the Oyokoman clan (8). Others invoke traditional sayings such as “Obaakofu Mmu Man” (“one person does not rule a nation”) or “Abusua Ye Dom” (“the extended family is a force”)