kente

The Asante  and Ewe peoples of Ghana in West Africa make kente cloth, the best known of all African textiles. Asante kente, such as the cloth shown here, has beautiful, brightly colored geometric patterns. Kente cloth expresses different proverbs or ideas through different designs. More than three hundred different kente designs have been recorded, and each one has its own particular message.

Kente cloth is woven primarily by men and is made up of many strips, each four to eight inches wide. These strips are cut into pieces and sewn together side by side to make a large cloth. The weaver must have the colors and design of the cloth in mind before he begins to weave. He may add variations of his own into a well-known, traditional pattern to make the design a unique one.

Historically, kente was royal cloth, and the king controlled the use and fabrication of it. With time, however, the use of kente became more wide- spread, and non-royal Ghanaians came to wear it on special occasions. When worn, kente is wrapped around the body and draped over the shoulder. The strips of the cloth must be straight, both horizontally and vertically, and the bottom of the cloth should hang at the same length all the way around the wearer’s ankles.

african strip weaving

Strip weaving is a craft that is found all over West Africa, and perhaps the most well-known is the kente cloth of Ghana, a textile that has almost come to epitomise a sense of the continent within the African diaspora.

Peggy Stoltz Gilfoy, writing in 1988, notes that weaving in West Africa is segregated on gender lines; narrow strip weaving on the narrow double-heddle loom is done exclusively by men and women who weave only do so on a broader vertical loom that produces cloth of a limited length.[1] The male method of weaving is at least a thousand years old and has not changed in all that time.

Mossi weaver, Burkina Faso, c. 1900. Gilfoy, Peggy Stoltz. Patterns of Life: West African Strip-Weaving Traditions. New York: Smithsonian Institution, 1987. 13.

According to Rita Bolland’s research on textiles discovered in the Tellem caves in Mali, the Peul were producing cotton and strip weaving by the 11th century, if not earlier.[2] Venice Lamb points out that this style of weaving is peculiar to West Africa, as although there are similar looms to be found in the Afghan-Pakistan border zone there is nothing exactly like it, and, as Lamb further states, “…neither in Europe nor the Middle East do we find this unvarying emphasis on the narrow strip as the basic element from which a cloth is made.”[3] John Gillow writes that the narrow strip weaving of Burkina Faso is between 8 – 10cm wide and that it is stitched together, selvedge to selvedge, to create a cloth that is usually between 8 and 10 strips wide.[4] The basic technique is utterly unchanged over centuries of tradition, the yarn being laboriously hand-spun by the women. Lamb offers four main reasons why this technique has remained such a constant. First, it reflects the natural conservatism of West Africans. Second, it is a good way to produce firm, strong cloth under difficult circumstances. Third, the technique permits the easy production of very small quantities without large capital outlay. Finally, the loom itself is easy to dismantle and store securely within the house, an important consideration for poor farmers.[5]  Gillow adds that the portability of looms aids the work of itinerant weavers, who sit in family courtyards and “drag out the task in hand, for they receive food and a present every day, and a parting gift such as a goat when the work is complete.”[6]

    

Strip weaver in the village of Sulgo, Burkina Faso, 2007. Photograph by the author.


[1] Gilfoy, Peggy Stoltz. Patterns of Life: West African Strip-Weaving Traditions. New York: Smithsonian Institution, 1987. 11.

[2] Bolland, Rita. “Clothing from Burial Caves in Mali, 11th – 18th Century.” History, Design and Craft in West African Strip-Woven Cloth. Papers presented at a Symposium organised by the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, February 18-19, 1988.  New York: Smithsonian Institution, 1992. 54.

[3] Lamb, Venice. West African Weaving. London: Duckworth & Co, 1975. 20.

[4] Gillow, John. Printed and Dyed Textiles from Africa. London: British Museum Press, 2001. 14.

[5] Lamb, 69.

[6] Gillow, 15.

RESOURCES:

Smithsonian website. Collection of Venice and Alastair Lamb from the Smithsonian Institute in New York.

Adire African Textiles. A wealth of material and knowledge from this online textile dealer.

new design from Africa

jacquard

Having spent four years tracking the development of a textile craft charity in West Africa, I was happy to see product innovation finally appearing after one weaver decided to experiment with graphic motifs. The Missoni-like effect of this intricate jacquard woven cotton has been put to good effect, the reverse being as perfect as the front – which means that the narrow cloth can be combined in a huge variety of ways.

However, only one weaver is producing this cloth, at a painfully slow rate. I have ordered two of these couvertures but fail to see how they can enter the market in any meaningful quantity. Training others to do this seems a priority.