Kente cloth is one of the African most popular and beloved pieces of clothes. It creates a quintessential African look. This hand-woven fabric is used in both male and female clothing, but the patterns and colors differ according to gender, status, and region of Africa. Historically, kente cloth is the attire of royalty, originating from Ghana. This fabric is so bright, sunny, and cheerful that you feel the temptation to buy one for yourself. But why is it not so good?
Many locals usually wear the traditional African garments to church or other events. But in general, wearing African clothing is a wonderful way for many to celebrate their culture and their heritage and to commemorate the beauty of the motherland. Wearing African clothing means so much more to many people than simply being a fashion statement. Tailors don't make clothes simply for appearance sake; each symbol, color, and even the shape of the clothing can have a specific purpose or meaning. African clothing can be a symbol of status, creativity, and allegiance to tribal roots.
Kente cloth is a hand-woven cloth that originated in Ghana (West Africa) and was primarily worn by the royalty of the Akan ethnic group. “Kente” comes from the Akan word “kenten”, which means “basket”, and is also known as “nwentoma”, which means “woven cloth”. The Akan people of Ghana have been weaving kente for centuries. The tradition is thought to be inspired by the weaving patterns of a spider’s web.
African men wearing kente
African women in kente
Traditionally, men wore the kente by wrapping it around the body and over one shoulder similar to a toga. Women wrapped the cloth around their body, under their arms, as a shawl or as a skirt.
Kente cloth is a quintessential African look. It is a vibrant fabric woven into long 3- to 4-inch wide panels. Several panels can be sewn together to make clothing for both men and women. The patterns (and there are more than 300 patterns), created by the brightly colored threads, often represent common motifs, religious beliefs, and political commentary.
The process of weaving a strip of kente cloth
Silk fabric was originally used to make the interwoven sections of cloth. Today, kente is made from cotton, rayon, and silk and is worn by many people, usually for special events like weddings, naming ceremonies, or funerals. The colors and patterns of the kente cloth are chosen to fit the event.
Weaving kente cloth on a loom
The colors are of a particular significance as they interpret the meaning of the patterns. With red symbolizing death, green meaning fertility, white expressing purity, and blue signifying love. Also yellow means richness, royalty, prosperity, monetary wealth, worthwhile, glorious, precious, fertility. Purple – feminine, calm, sweet; it is only worn by girls and women.
The main symbols on kente cloth:
- square – represents the earth and cosmos, feminity, fertility, and life. It is also a symbol of the Akan matrilineal society;
- triangle – symbolizes life (birth, existence, and death);
- diamond – worn by royalty to show their dual, linked roles as human and chief / man and king;
- circle – represents eternity/infinity (no beginning and no end) of royal power and lineage;
- cross – symbolizes the spirit and breath of life;
- zigzag – means that life does not follow a straight path;
- golden stool – symbol of power.
Having traveled to Ghana and meeting the artisans who make kente cloth, we found that the weaving of the kente cloth is a familial tradition. The skill is passed down from one generation to another and is often, if not always, done by males. The looms are designed in such a way that the kente cloth is woven in strips and then a shawl-like garment is made from the strips. The large garment is called “ntoma” and is usually worn by the Chiefs and Queen mothers at festivals. The colors and design signify a family unit. Certain family members wear a certain motif, thus they are recognized as belonging to a particular clan.
Various samples of kente cloth
Recently, kente cloth or kente patterned cloth has been used in popular fashion and styles. However, it really should be studied as to what the patters mean and indicate. It's sort of how you would wonder about a Chinese man going to a store and purchasing a kilt, the traditional dress of the Gaelic men and boys in the Scottish Highlands, that he saw in a window. Quite naturally, he would look a bit strange to the people of Scotland who know what wearing the kilt means and why.