Kente—The Cloth of Kings
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN GHANA
IN A flurry of speed, the weaver’s hands glide back and forth across the face of the cloth. Moving to the rhythm of squeaking pulleys and creaking levers, the craftsman concentrates on the colorful strip of cloth that lies before him. He holds ropes between his toes; these ropes work the heddles—harnesses that move up and down separating and guiding the vertical warp threads that stretch out 20 feet [6 m] in front of the loom.* Nimbly his fingers weave single strands of colorful silk horizontally into the separated warp threads, creating a weft pattern that is then beaten tightly into the finished fabric.
The piece of cloth that emerges is a mere four inches [10 cm] wide. But it radiates with brilliant color and intricate patterns. The craftsman smiles with satisfaction as he examines his masterpiece—genuine kente cloth.
An Ancient Craft
For thousands of years, skilled artisans have employed the ancient craft of weaving. Threads spun from flax, cotton, and silk have always provided a ready source of weaving materials. Basic colors were extracted from roots and plant leaves, giving weavers the ability to create simple designs and patterns in their work.
Weavers among the nomadic peoples of Africa devised looms that were small and easily transported from place to place. Known as strip looms, they produced a narrow strip of cloth only three to five inches [7.5-11.5 cm] in width. These long, narrow lengths of fabric were then sewn together, edge to edge, to create a larger cloth that could be wrapped around the body as a garment. Portable strip looms were carried on the backs of pack animals across deserts, through rivers, and over high mountain ranges. Transported along ancient trade routes, the strip loom had a profound influence on the peoples it touched.
The Desire for Cloth
For many centuries West African kings and chiefs controlled the mineral-rich land that the European explorers called the Gold Coast.* Here large amounts of gold were mined, bringing wealth to the ruling Ashanti kings and their royal households. Adorned with heavy gold jewelry and wrapped in specially woven cloth, these kings and their prominent chiefs made a display of their wealth, power, and authority before their subjects. The unique cloth these rulers wore came to be called kente, a word that may have alluded to the cloth’s similarity to the weave of a basket. Other Gold Coast tribes also practiced strip weaving, but for the Ashanti kings, kente cloth came to represent prestige and royal status.
Gold Coast strip weavers used locally spun cotton. Only yarn dyed blue was available. These blue threads were woven into the dull white of the cotton cloth to produce lines and blocks in simple geometric patterns for the local people.
The finer weaving of the king’s royal kente cloth was restricted. Skilled royal weaving groups were established to create and produce high-quality material. The weaving technique was a jealously guarded and well-kept secret. All other weavers were forbidden to weave the textile patterns and designs that were exclusively for the king and his royal court. The king accumulated hundreds of cloths, each with its own unique design and pattern. Traditionally, he would never wear the same cloth in public more than once.
The Quest for Color
In the 16th century, another type of cloth began to appear on the Gold Coast. This new cloth was not woven on African strip looms but produced in distant lands and brought by the first European sailors searching for ivory, gold, and slaves. The imported cloth contained threads of bright, eye-catching colors. Soon, this imported cloth, woven richly with red, yellow, and green threads, became a valued trading commodity. Few had the wealth to obtain such expensive cloth from the European traders. Only the rich Ashanti, who controlled the flow of gold, ivory, and slaves to the sailing ships waiting at the coast, had the means to obtain it. But the woven cloth was not what the Ashanti king and his chiefs desired.
Once cloth was obtained, weavers painstakingly unraveled and removed the coveted colored threads, discarding the cloth that remained. These precious threads were then rewoven on the strip looms of the royal weavers. As the color range of materials increased, so initiative and innovation blossomed, prompting the craftsmen to express their creative and technical skills in cloth as never before. Skilled weavers from other tribes were employed by the Ashanti kings, resulting in the production of kente cloth of unmatched quality.
Geometric patterns that resembled fish, birds, fruits, leaves, sunsets, rainbows, and other spectacles of nature formed a textile art that was minutely detailed and contained symbolic meaning. Cloth interwoven with golden threads represented wealth, the color green conveyed the idea of freshness and newness, black symbolized sadness, red showed anger, and silver pictured purity and joy.
Weavers worked patiently and without haste for many months on a single cloth, knowing that their finished work would be judged as a measurement of their skill and creative genius. Demand was low for such exquisite workmanship, as few could afford to purchase rare and expensive kente cloth.
With the passing of time, the influence of kings and powerful chiefs began to wane. No longer was there a need to separate royalty from commoner by a cloth. Demand for this beautiful fabric increased, as it began to be used for nonroyal purposes. Woven quickly to meet a greater demand, kente cloth began to decline in quality, workmanship, and price.
Today the majority of kente weaving is done with synthetic thread and is then used in the mass production of bags, ties, belts, hats, and clothing. Few weavers are interested in producing kente cloth by means of the labor-intensive, time-consuming methods of the past. Old kente of superb quality is now treasured and passed on from generation to generation within families. Indeed, gone are the days when kente cloth of unrivaled excellence and dazzling craftsmanship was produced on simple wooden looms and was acclaimed as the cloth of kings.
Warp—the series of yarns extending lengthwise into the loom. Weft—the series of yarns running crosswise to the warp yarns.
[Pictures on page 16]
Strip looms are light and portable
[Picture on page 17]
The weaver uses his feet to work the heddles, or harnesses