Associated with wealth, high social status and cultural sophistication, Ghanain Kente cloth is probably the most significant and esteemed textile in Africa. Originally the ‘cloth of kings’, it now has a much more general accessibility and is woven in many forms and fibers. Together with Kuba cloth from Zaire, it remains the most venerated and recognized textile in Africa.
Background and history
The centre of kente world is a small town called Bonwire in Ghana. In this region, textile production of strip weaving among the Ewe and Akan tribes began as early as 1000 AD which had its roots in a long tradition of weaving in Africa dating back to about 3000 BC.
In Asante, Kente cloth is known as nwentoma or “woven cloth”. The actual name kente comes from the word kenten which means “basket” since, originally, the cloth was constructed with fibre from palm fronds.
In 1697, King Osei Tutu travelled to neighboring Ivory Coast with selected weavers to become experts in the complex art of kente weaving. On their return to Ghana they begun to create their own designs especially for Ashanti royalty to wear at special ceremonies which included marriages, funerals, worship, festivals and state functions.
Kente has remained the cloth of kings and paramount chiefs in the various traditional areas to this day. Even though you will find it worn in a more secular environment, the cloths that are available to the public and for purchase will never surpass those reserved for the highest echelons of Ghanain society.
The Asantehene (Ashanti Chief) adopted this fabric as a royal cloth and its prestige was encouraged and enhanced by using it only for special occasions.
Kente is also found in Asante shrines to the deities, or abosom, as a mark of their spiritual power.