Kente cloth is deeply intertwined with the history of the Ashanti nation. The Ashanti Empire or Confederacy, which was located in what is today Ghana, first emerged in West Africa during the seventeenth century. The Ashanti are members of the Akan people who speak the Akan or Ashanti dialect.
Kente means basket and Akans refer to Kente as nwentoma, which means woven cloth. Although the first kente cloth was made of raffia fibers, Kente cloth, which was associated with Ashanti royalty, was made of silk during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Silk was extremely costly because this fabric was imported into the Ashanti Kingdom through the Sahara route,a route stretched across Sahara Desert. This trade route, dated back to 300BC, crossed some of the most barren and desolate land 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 an expensive price tag.
Ashanti women purchased the silk from the caravans but the Kente cloth was woven by men, as woman’s menstrual cycles were thought to interfere with the production of the cloth.
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returned to Ghana, they started to weave the beautiful and colourful cloth exclusively for the King because kente was originally made and worn only by the royals.
Kente cloth is now used to make clothes for all sorts of people, not only royalty and not along the Ashanti. It has become particularly popular among tourists who often buy Kente inspired bags and shoes when visiting Ghana. Law makers in the United States draped a piece of kente around their shoulders while observing the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2020.
Moreover, Kente is still very much worn by the Ashanti royals, usually draped across the shoulders, including traditional black and white designs, for prestigious occasions including: ceremonies, worship, outings, marriages and funerals.
The raw materials used for weaving are:
- Cotton (grown in the north of Ghana).
- Silk (very expensive and was the traditional thread used).
- Rayon (synthetic fibre).
- Metallic thread (adds shine to cloth).
Kente cloth designs vary, with the different designs, colors, and patterns each having their own special meanings and stories.