The symbols and imagery of kente cloth was always held in high esteem, by locals of Ghana and worldwide. The names of the patterns reflect the colors and designs of the stripes. From its origins, kente cloth represented royalty and woven solely for the Asantehene or king. Only royalty and the elite wore Kente cloth. Births, marriages, burials, and other special occasions is when this cloth is worn in celebration. This paper will examine the history of Kente cloth in Ghana; regarding its foundation, and the varied views of its origins (Adjaye & Andrews, 1997). The research clarifies the Ashanti and the Ewe’s connection with Kente cloth as well as explore the symbols and viewpoints associated with the distinct patterns, designs and motivation behind it. This study is important to have further research conducted into the use and meanings, symbols and designs in indigenous textiles. By using comparative analysis, a survey, and content analysis to collect data applicable to this, the research will show that even though Ashanti and Ewe Kente cloths are unique, they both have differentiating characteristics; ultimately, they have familiar roles regarding symbols, meanings, and well as the usage of these symbols during special or traditional events. The research further establishes that aesthetically, one can see the difference between Ashanti and Ewe Kente cloth. The importance of this research is to educate about the true meaning of the designs, symbols and colors of kente cloth that have become a fad and the meaning behind them.
Purpose and Objective(s) of the Study
The purpose and objective of this study is to investigate the origins and traditions rooted in the origins, symbols and colors in both the Ashanti and Ewe kente cloths.
• What are the symbolic meanings of the designs, patterns, and symbols?
• According to tradition, what do the colors mean?
• Do people that wear the designs/motifs know what they mean?
The Ashanti and Ewe of Ghana, both have similarities in their Kente cloth. They both incorporate stories or proverbs in their designs. One of the oldest known skills in Ghana is weaving. The material that was the most commonly used before contemporary weaving came to Ghana was bark from the Kyenkyen tree. These strips were long, thin, soaked in water, and beaten with wood mallets into pliable material (Rattray, 1927). Women would purchase the silk, but only men were and still are weavers. The men would take the strip-woven cloth onto a narrow double-heddle loom with mainly two or four heddles. These days, looms use up to six heddles, giving the weaver the ability to construct more intricate and variations of twill weave. The names of cloth type usually refer to the overall quality of the cloth, or the warp-stripe pattern (Avins ; Quick, 1998). The names of the patterns reflect the colors and designs of the stripes. In the beginning, Kente cloth represented Ashanti royalty. Only royalty and the elite wore Kente cloth. Each color in the Kente cloth has a symbolic meaning. The unique and intricate designs and patterns of this woven fabric relay proverbs and stories from the Ashanti’s history. The symbolism is still important in the present day, even though the fabric and its original purpose have changed. Whereas only royalty and the elite wore Kente cloth made of silk, today all social classes wear these patterns and designs, which are now mainly cotton and rayon. Originally, royalty wore Kente cloth at social or ceremonial functions. The intentions were for rites of passage such as marriage, naming of a child and puberty. In addition, Kente cloth has sacred intent, in some instances it was given as a gift to respect the departed during burial rites and ancestral remembrance ceremonies; it was not for everyday wear and/or everyday activities.
This research explores the values and beliefs within the designs, colors, and symbols of Ashanti and Ewe Kente cloths. The organization of this paper is based on the origin of the cloth by the two ethnic groups of Ghana, the Ashanti and the Ewe. Both the Ashanti and the Ewe cloths have similarities and features. The designs and symbols have meanings that speak to quality of life and used as a guide in transitions in life. Asante Kente cloth is popular and most well known of the African textiles because of its popularity and mass-production. This cloth is typically indicative of the cultures, faith and customs of the ethnic group it originates from and every style has a meaning (Patrick, 2005). The multi colored woven fabric is bold and bright with its geometric shapes, vivid colors, and traditional designs are both stunning and astonishing. The word ‘Kente’ or Kenten comes from the Twi language and it means ‘basket’ (Kotey, 2000). Woven fabrics have the appearance of a basket weave, therefore calling it Kente. The most popular of the African fabrics because of the mass production, popular in many countries, and is sold in a variety of forms. Men and women wear Kente cloth differently and it is constructed to be worn according to gender. The women wear Kente cloth in three pieces; worn like a skirt, one piece is taken and wrapped around the waist or the lower body by a scarf. The first piece of cloth sometimes has a piece of elastic sewn into the band or string of cloth and the second piece of cloth is made into a blouse or Kaba. The third piece is usually folded into a small piece widthwise and held in one hand like a purse or it can be folded lengthwise and letting it hang over the left shoulder. There are apparent differences of how male and females wear their Kente cloth garments, even though they bear comparable colors and designs (Asamoah-Yaw E, 2017). Men wear their Kente cloth loosely draped around the body from the shoulders down with the ends held over the left shoulder (culturally inappropriate to wear over right shoulder) similar to how the Roman’s wore togas (Kodzo, 2009). The composition of the male cloth takes 28 strips that are approximately four inches wide and 39 inches in length sewn together to produce the garment for males. The male garment uses five designs to start and five designs to close the border and twenty-nine designs for the main design or pattern on the cloth. In comparison to the male garment, the female garment is similar. Cloth used for female’s is made of 24 strips sewn together, eight for the slit, eight for the cover, and eight for the Kaba. The individual strips are four inches in width, five designs for starting the border, and another five to close the border. There are eleven designs used in the key design; the design that is the focal point in the middle is usually distinct. Ewe people had a tradition of horizontal weaving on the loom, later adopting the Ashanti style of constructing Kente cloth. There were differences between Ashanti and Ewe production. In the 18th century under Ashanti were concentrated in different areas, so the Ewe unlike the Ashanti did not limit use of the Kente to royalty only, though it was associated with status and special ceremonies. More variety in the designs and purpose exist in Ewe Kente, and symbols had more to do with everyday life than prestige and status. Ewe weavers could express their creativity and talent more so than the Ashanti weavers could. Garments specially made called, Adan udo, are decorative with symbols of animals, people, and plants. These designs improved the look of the weft blocks. Like the Ashanti, the Ewe’s motifs also tell stories, proverb and significance of the culture.
2. What the Designs Are Conveying
For every country, culture, and society there is a cloth or textile that communicates. It has specific communication through its symbols, colors and designs through being part of or aware of a specific culture (Kwakye-Opong, 2011). Weavers would name each pattern, design and cloth. During dreams or through a meditative state compared to being in the spirit world, the cloths were given names. Otherwise, chiefs and elders assigned names to cloths that they had specially made. Weavers would also name cloths after historical events, moral values, animal behavior, and even oral literature. Before mass production, when purchasing a cloth, the aesthetic and social appeal was as important as—or sometimes even more important than—it’s visual pattern or color. Various writers and literature examined that generally cultures worldwide have cloths that are strictly used for special functions, including cloths relating to socio-cultural roles (Clarke 2002; Tortora & Eubank 1994; Payne 1965; Barton 1969). Relating cloths to a society with regards to symbols and meanings, Barton reported on the toga (a semicircular cloth, approximately 10 and 20 feet in length, draped over the shoulders and around the body) worn by the Romans. Payne, to her, the toga held gender roles in Roman custom and practice (Payne 1965) Tortora & Eubank expand on the toga worn by the Romans during the 18th century. The Roman toga had various distinct features in embellishment, color, shape, and the method used for draping. In order to balance the weight of the fabric it needed to be folded properly and knowing how to fold came with experience. During most of the cultural period of the Roman Empire, the toga was the mandatory cloth to be used by the people and was also appropriate and expected to be worn in the presence of a Roman representative. Each toga had specific roles and functions. Girls of royal lineage wore togas until they were married or turned 16 years old. Both boys and girls of royal birth wore a white robe with a purple border, the toga praetexta, the boys used it until they turned 14 years old then they wore a plain man’s toga, the toga pura. If the toga pura was dark in color, it was known as the toga pulla, associated with mourning and death. Honorable people in Roman society, such as generals, wore purple togas decorated with gold embroidery, called the toga picta (Tortora ; Eubank 1994).
Similar accounts examined by Clarke (2002) on backgrounds of other diverse cloths and fabrics such as the “Aso oke of the Yoruba; Kente, Royal cloth of the Ashanti; Bogolan, mud-dyed cloth of Mali and the raffia cloths of Zaire”. Clark states that the raffia cloth from Zaire, held a high social ranking by being able to use it as a “negotiating tool and influence. This resulted in the Loango people having to get “royal approval before buying, selling, or wearing the designs and those in violation were executed.” The raffia cloth designs held social significance and traditional customs, some included: rites of passage, presentation of a new born baby, brides and becoming a chieftain. In addition to raffia being a status symbol, it was used in sizeable quantities at the burial of wealthy people in that society (Clarke, 2002). In relation to cloth that communicate, Clarke (2002) gives awareness to key socio-cultural, political, religious, and economic roles of the Aso oke cloth of the Yoruba. The Nigerian people’s practice of social ranking, Aso oke cloth is high in social status and prosperity. Like the raffia cloth from Zaire, the Aso oke also is used as a ceremonial cloth for births, weddings, and death. The Northern Bunu ethnic group uses one type of Aso oke cloth along with red clothes for attending a chieftain’s funeral. A cloth similar to the Aso oke, the Aso olona tend not be woven or worn as standard attire. It is associated with ceremonies and royalty as well. The Etu is a deep blue almost black indigo dyed color cloth and is always the same color. This cloth plays a major part in Islamic holy days, naming and marriage ceremonies, and other very festive occasions (Clarke, 2002).
Scholarly attention have gained examinations of Kente cloth from Ghana by several writers. Amoako-Attah (2007), Fianu (2002), Clarke (2002), Ahiagble (2002) and Ross (1998) discuss the origin, meanings, and names of some Kente designs. These writers uphold that kente is a woven material of numerous hues, tints and shades used for ceremonial occasions and each pattern has a name and a message that it communicates. Writer Asamoah-Yaw (1994) indicates that Kente can be made with two or several color patterns, woven in symbols in place of words, with the origins created for Ashanti chief’s ceremonial events. Ahwepan was Kente cloths beginning stage and was black and white cotton yarn in basic motifs.
The primary reason of weavers to signal the people about the social status or state of the community at that time of the royals; was so the royal cloth, Abrempong-ntoma, would easily identify Ashanti chiefs and Kyemea Kente would identify queen mothers. Asamoah-Yaw (1994) details that the Abusua-y?-dom Kente cloth was worn by men that were Ashanti kingmakers, calling for the removal of a chief that would not give up his title easily.
The use and status of clothes has helped to communicate social and economic status. Chiefs, queen mothers, and the people that perform rites of passage dress for their position in society. These people are highly respected, their clothes are distinctive, rich, and exclusive, not for the ordinary man, woman, or child. In the past the Ashanti social tradition gave the king the sole right to wear a specified width of nkyeretire cloth (Kente pattern that has designs appearing only at the edges with the middle of the cloth without designs). The makeup of the king’s Kente cloth was an indication of his wealth. Golds or yellow, which represents wealth, was what the kings’ would wear to show the citizen’s to confirm his prosperity. Special weavers were designated to make the king designs that he alone could wear and these designs couldn’t be reproduced (Kwakye-Opong, 2011).
Like the Ashanti, the Ewe Kente cloth has a history of giving the fabrics names or relating them to meanings such as the word for unity, Akpedo. Fiawoyome is another term which means ‘next to the royals’. White Kente is a color that is worn by chiefs during special occasions or celebratory times. The white is symbolic of the protection, security, and continued survival of the community. Fiawoyome, or the chief’s entourage, wore this cloth to be able to distinguish them from other’s that were in the palace. Wearing fiawoyome designs signified the wearer had achieved status, advancement and security (Ahiagble, 2004).
Since the late 1970’s, Kente has been popular in academia. It still is popular during rites of passage and celebratory affairs. Some USA high school, undergraduate, and graduate students wear Kente in their graduation gowns and/or stoles. Kente is not only popular in academia, but is seen in the robes of religious officials. The meanings however are for cultural appeal and heritage more so than the cloths esthetic beauty. Kente cloth is having a new resurgence for African Americans, the textile is becoming number one of choice when culture and accomplishments are celebrated.
3. Review of Literature
Kente cloth is the most notable fabric in Ghana. There is still inconsistency to the true beginning of the strip weaving process to whether it was the Ashanti or the Ewe that originated this method (Dotse, 2015). Whereas, only the royals and the elites wore the fabric that was once made of silk, it is now mass produced in cotton and rayon and affordable to a larger population than it once was (Achberge, n.d.). The Ashanti of Ghana was the supposed inventor of Kente cloth over four hundred years ago, according to the authors Asamoah-Yaw and Safo-Kantanka (2017). Asamoah (2012) attempts to clarify the origins and history of Kente cloth and gives incites to what the different patterns mean and how they originated. Like Asamoah, Polakoff (1982) discloses the symbolic meanings of the designs, in which she states the meanings relate to historic events and proverbs from the bible. Polakoff also mentions the relevance of strip weaving and its relevance then and now. Ross (2010) examined the particular names of the warp stripe patterns associated with Kente cloth. Some of the names of the cloth derive from warrior chiefs and queen mothers. One of the more popular cloths warp pattern gets its name from the ancestry of an Ashanti king. Ross also addresses the weft design, called Adweeasa. Dennis (2004) writes about what the unique patterns, distinct designs, and what the colors in the cloth mean and symbolize. Modern day Kente cloth is still relevant and symbolic, even though it is not for royalty use only anymore; its usage has changed and progressed (Achberge, n.d.).
Several studies offer insightful information on the origin and history and patterns and design of Kente cloth. The uniqueness of the patterns are the geometric figures ranging in various sizes in shades of maroon, gold, green, dark blue and black (Ross, 1998; Avins & Quick, 1998; Edusei, 2006). The construction of the cloth strips relies on the design of the weft and geometric figure to attain the general design. There are four groups of Kente patterns: Ahwepan, Topreko, Faprenu, and Asasia (Cole & Ross, 1977). Ahwepan, a plain-weave pattern with weft stripes; Topreko normally includes ‘single weave’ pattern made up of two blocks of weft-faced Babadua, a block of weft-faced Adwini asa that is made by using double or triple weft threads that go over and under, and varying sets of six warp threads followed by a group thread. Faprenu is produced using two or three supporting weft threads that are wrapped on a bobbin with the threads going back and forth before the ground thread is put in to produce blocks of Adwini asa so close together that the warp threads are hidden through the weft. Asasia is the rarest of Kente patterns. It is a twill pattern in a diagonal alignment of weft floats; this pattern was solely for the Asantehene (Cole & Ross, 1977; Asinyo & Frimpong, 2013).
Through investigating and observation in the Ashanti and Ewe Kente cloths, the qualitative research method, which focused on literature, observation and interviews were used. The targeted population was taken from downtown Detroit, Michigan. This choice was made because of number of Ghanaians that work in that area. Also investigating the philosophies rooted in both Ashanti and Ewe Kente cloths, the qualitative method will focus on dialogue and content analysis. I’ve interviewed eight people that attended ceremonies involving rites of passage, funerals, and more festive occasions and asked their views on designs, colors, and symbolism on the cloths.
A total of 25 interviewees were purposively sampled; they consisted of three categories or strata of people including (a) chiefs daughters, Kente sellers, and other older men and women. (b) Lecturers, teachers, nurses, and (c) boutique owners, cloth sellers, dressmakers, and Generation Z (born mid 1990s-2000s). The three strata of people are all a homogenous group, but have differing opinions, attitudes, and views. Being, as royals, historians and traditionalists, chief priests, priests/ priestesses, queen mothers and elders form one category because of their knowledge in the historical trends in clothing and adornment.