Kente comes from the word kenten, which means “basket” in the Asante dialect of the Akan language, referencing its basket-like pattern. In Ghana, the Akan ethnic group refers to kente as nwentoma, meaning “woven cloth”.
The Kente textile which is deeply rooted in the history of the Ashanti nation is made of handwoven cloth strips of silk and cotton. Ashanti folklore includes a story where weavers invented kente by seeking to replicate the patterns of Anansi the spider.
Historically, the fabric was worn in a toga-like fashion by royalty among the Akan and Ewe people.
These days, the Kente has gone to be one of the most recognisable traditional textiles in the world.
Recently lawmakers in the United States draped a piece of kente around their shoulders while observing the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
History of Kente
Although the first kente cloth was made of raffia fibers, Kente cloth, which was associated with Ashanti royalty, was made of silk during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Silk was extremely costly as this fabric was imported into the Ashanti kingdoms through the trans-Saharan trade route, a route that stretched across the Sahara Desert from the West Coast of Africa to the Middle East and from there to Europe and Asia.
This trade route which dated back to at least 300 BC crossed some of the most barren and desolate lands in the world. The dangers of this crossing, even when traders used caravans of camels, were such that any and all goods transported this way came with a hefty price tag.
Ashanti women purchased the silk brought by these caravans but Kente cloth was woven only by men, as woman’s menstrual cycles were thought to interfere with the production of the cloth.
So in 1697, the King of the Ashanti Kingdom, Osei Tutu, selected several weavers from nearby towns and villages to travel to neighbouring Ivory Coast to become experts in the complex art form.
Once they returned to Ghana, they started to weave the beautiful and colourful cloth exclusively for the King because kente was originally made and worn only by the royals.
The weavers started to create their own unique designs, which are now well known worldwide as ‘Ashanti kente’. The Ewe is another ethnic group that also weave kente in Ghana.
Today, the Ashanti royals still wear the sacred cloth usually draped across the shoulders, including traditional black and white designs, for prestigious occasions including ceremonies, worship, outings, marriages, and funerals.
The kente cloth designs are powerful cultural symbols that represent history and philosophy. Each design has a specific name and significant meaning that reflects cultural values of Ghanaians as well as historical events. You can tell the symbolic meanings from the different designs and colours used.
black: maturation, intensified spiritual energy, spirits of ancestors, passing rites, mourning, and funerals
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: assoc. with the female essence of life; a mild, gentle aspect of red
purple: assoc. 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
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