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The History and Meaning Behind West African Kente Cloth

Kente is a brightly coloured, banded material and is the most widely known cloth produced in Africa. Although kente cloth is now identified with the Akan people in West Africa, and particularly the Asante Kingdom, the term originates from the neighbouring Fante. Kente cloth is closely related to Adinkra cloth, which has symbols stenciled into cloth and is associated with mourning.

Kente cloth is made from thin strips about four cm thick woven together on narrow looms - typically by men.

The strips are interlaced to form a fabric which is usually worn wrapped around the shoulders and waist like a toga - the garment is also known as kente. Women wear two shorter lengths to form a skirt and bodice.

Originally made from white cotton with some indigo patterning, kente cloth evolved when silk arrived with Portuguese traders in the seventeenth century. Fabric samples were pulled apart for the silken thread, which was then woven into the kente cloth. Later, when skeins of silk became available, more sophisticated patters were created - although the extortionate cost of the silk meant they were only available to Akan royalty.

Kente has its own mythology - claiming the original cloth was taken from the web of a spider - and related superstitions - such as no work can be started or completed on a Friday and that mistakes require an offering to be made to the loom.

In kente cloth colours are significant:

Even today, when a new design is created, it must first be offered to the royal house.

If the king declines to take the pattern, it can be sold to the public. Designs worn by Asante royalty may not be worn by others.

As one of the prominent symbols of African arts and culture, Kente cloth has been embraced by the broader African diaspora (which means people of African descent wherever they might live.) Kente cloth is particularly popular in the United States among African-Americans and can be found on all types of clothing, accessories, and objects. These designs replicate registered Kente designs, but are often

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