According to Akan legends, the Kente cloth was inspired by the elaborate web designs of a mythic spider, Ananse. Nearly 400 years ago, two friends, Krugu Amoaya and Watah Kraban, went hunting into a forest where they came upon a spider making a web. They stood there for two days watching and taking note of the spider’s intricate designs.
When they returned home, the two began to implement the designs they saw in the clothes they wore using fibers from a raffia tree. These first designs were called kents. The earliest cloths were made with white cotton enhanced with some indigo patterns.
The Cloth of Kings
The wealthy West African empire of Ashanti (Asante) lasted from 1701 to 1957. At its height, this empire was at the epicenter of the West African silk trade with the Portuguese. The trade brought in exotic silk that was used to enhance kente cloth.
The first Ashanti emperor-king was Osei Tutu (c. 1695 – 1717), who was one of the first to wear the elaborate cloth. Even though kente cloth began as an Ashanti symbol for the monarchy, it was eventually available to everyone.
Kumasi, capital of Ashanti and Kente Cloth Capital
The Akan ethnic group is the largest group in both Ghana and the Ivory coast. The kente cloth is known as nwentom in the Akan language.
It is believed that the elegant fabric is made in Kumasi, capital of Ashanti and the Ashantiland Peninsula.
Kente Cloth Can be Exclusive
Even though everyone can wear the cloth, Ashanti royals/ chiefs get to choose the newest designs first. According to About.com, the tradition still continues today. When a new design is created, it must be offered and presented to the royal house. If a king declines to accept the pattern, it can be sold to the public. However, chosen designs that are worn by Ashanti royalty can not be worn by the public.
Women Do Not Weave Kente Cloth
In the early years, the cloth was exclusively woven by males. The cloth was a symbol of royal and political power and women could not weave it because it would violate social norms. The Akan people believe that a woman’s menstrual cycle interferes with the production of the cloth. Today, men still primarily do the weaving.
There are Different Kinds and They All Have Meaning
There are 12 different varieties of kente cloth to choose from. Many of the colors range from black, gold, yellow, blue and green. Their distinct colors also hold special meaning. For example, black means maturation and intensified spiritual energy. Blue cloth represents peacefulness, harmony and love. Green kente cloth stands for vegetation, planting, harvesting, growth and spiritual renewal. Gold and yellow represent wealth and royalty.
Kente Cloth in Mainstream Fashion
The cloth has become mainstream since the American Pan-African and Black power movements in the 1960s and 70s. In the ’80s and ’90s, rappers such as Salt-N-Pepper began to wear the cloth. Designer Lola Maleombho routinely models her clothing after kente patterns, and her designs are featured on some of the world’s most glamorous runways.
In recent news, the popular cloth has become the subject of institutionalized backlash because some have deemed it “tacky.” Atlanta Black Star also reported that young Black women have decided to forgo traditional prom dresses for more Afro-centic styles including kente cloth. These high school students have gone viral for their uniquely African dresses.
Over the years, the cloth has spread across the African diaspora. People have used it as a special gift item during ceremonies such as child naming, graduation or marriage. In some cases it has been used as a symbol of respect for the departed during funerals and ancestral ceremonies.
In Ghana and the Ivory Coast, men sport the cloth in a toga or kimono. Women wear it in two pieces for the top and lower body. In the U.S., Black graduates wear the cloth as a stole around their necks, signifying Black excellence and pride in one’s heritage.