Weaving the Past to Support the Future – Village Artistry in Ghana

 

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A spectacular sunrise over the shore of the Keta Lagoon, near Dogbekope village in Ghana’s Volta Region

On an idyllic morning in a picturesque remote village in southeastern Ghana, I went for a walk to learn more about one of the traditional crafts Ghana is known for – the weaving of Kente cloth.  There’s a controversy over which tribe originated the style of weaving known as “Kente” – and it’s understandable that more than one group would want to lay claim to it – it’s gorgeous!  Kente weaving is primarily done by two tribes – the Ewe (pronounced EH-way) and the Ashanti – and the designs woven by each tribe are slightly different.  This article will be focusing on Ewe Kente.

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A stripe of Kente cloth being woven on a traditional loom constructed from locally-available materials

Like so many crafts that have been handed down from generation to generation, weaving Kente cloth is a labor of love more than a lucrative business.  Indeed, the weavers work for up to a week to produce enough cloth for a garment that will sell for between 40 and 50 US Dollars.  Market vendors double the price and reap the reward for the hard work that was put into it.  Typically, young children will begin learning to weave at around six years of age and by nine or ten be able to contribute significantly to the family’s income.

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A young girl patiently winds thread onto spools that will be used in the weaving process

Kente cloth is used traditionally to make garments that are worn on very special occasions, such as festivals and weddings.  One-yard lengths of repeating woven designs known as “stripes” are sewn side by side to create rectangular pieces of fabric.  These are worn in a toga-like fashion by men.

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A tribal chief in Kente finery

Women will traditionally wear Kente either wrapped over the shoulder like a toga, or in several smaller pieces worn around the waist as a skirt and around the top as a blouse – a married woman will wear a second skirt over the first one to indicate her marital status and as a “back off” signal to would-be suitors!  The width of the woven “stripe” generally differs for men’s cloth and women’s cloth – for the men’s cloth the stripe will be about seven inches wide, and for ladies, about 4 ½ inches.

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Segbedzi Banya has been weaving for close to 40 years. His family compound in the village has several looms for ongoing projects. Different family members as young as nine years old will help complete orders.

Mr. Banya explained a bit about the weaving process as he deftly pushed the “boat” containing the spool of thread back and forth through the threads on the loom.  Speaking through an interpreter, he described how different patterns are formed in the cloth – from the simplest “single weave” (one-sided design) to “double weave” (reversible design) to the complicated and lengthy process of creating a “triple weave” (completely different designs on both sides of the cloth).  A triple weave for enough cloth for a garment can take up to a month to finish.

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The finished cloth is wrapped around the pole above the weaver’s lap, while a tire holds the long threads taut. The tire moves forward little by little as the weaving takes form.

Kente cloth is earning recognition both here in Ghana and in the world of African fashion as part of haute couture, and designers come to the village to place orders for specific colors and patterns of woven cloth.  Mr. Banya showed us a poster that gives examples of how Kente can be used in dress design.

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How many fun ways can you think of to use Kente cloth?!

As a particular lover of symbols, I especially love that Ewe Kente cloth incorporates specific designs that have meaning.  From geometric patterns to animals, those adept can understand the message being portrayed in the cloth.  I was lucky enough to be able to attend an exhibit of Ewe Kente at the National Museum of Ghana in Accra to learn more about traditional Kente and its meaning in tribal life.

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A section of Ewe Kente of historical importance. The chameleon is a sacred animal in traditional religion.

The first time I observed the weavers at Dogbekope I was just so amazed that from simple materials, something of such great beauty could be created.  In the world of sustainable fashion, we talk about turning people on to buying clothes that they will value and enjoy for years, rather than cheap, mass-produced garments that are virtually disposable.  In my opinion, anything made from Kente cloth will become an heirloom.  It’s my hope that more fashion designers in the US and Europe will discover this special cloth and incorporate it into their haute couture designs!

The sad fact of the matter is that the villages where this traditional cloth is woven are suffering.  In Dogbekope for instance, there are two main sources of income – salt production and weaving.  Most of the weaving is done for local people for special occasions, or for local fashion designers.  When the economy worsens, locals can’t afford to buy special items like Kente cloth.  The number of orders goes down, and the weavers have to find other ways to feed their families.  Over time, fewer children will take up the family tradition, opting instead to leave the village to move to the big cities in search of work.  As in so many parts of the world, these traditional means of creating beautiful fabrics will die out here in Ghana if the weavers aren’t able to bring in a steady stream of business.

Poverty forces people to make hard choices, and right now there is a challenging question facing the elders and residents of Dogbekope.  A foreign mining company wants to come in, ostensibly to mine salt.  Of course they have promised the moon to the villagers, who are desperate for a better life. The likely truth is that they’re after the petroleum deposits under the salt, and the fear amongst those more educated is that once established in the village, the mining company will take environmental shortcuts that will ruin life for the residents.  We’ve seen similar situations in so many villages here in Ghana, and the village always loses out in the long run.

My dream is to introduce this special fabric to the wider world of fashion design to bring steady work and income into the village, to preserve this ancient craft.  Please share this article with others.  If even one designer starts to incorporate Kente cloth into their work, who knows?  A spark could start a flame!

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Customers provide the weavers with the designs and colors they want – you imagine it and they create it.

 

If you’re a fashion designer and would like to use Kente cloth, I would be happy to coordinate your order and ship it to you from Ghana.  Please email me at abena.sara@batiksforlife.com for details!

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Sara Corry

About the Author

Sara Corry, aka Abena Sara lives in the Eastern Region of Ghana, West Africa, close to the capital city, Accra. Tropical Africa is feeling like home now after nearly 30 years as a desert dweller! When not involved in business development, she can be found with camera in hand trying to photograph the beautiful native bird life. She writes a blog about daily life in Ghana, and is a contributor to a website devoted to wildlife conservation in Africa. She has a passion for travel and would jump on a plane to almost anywhere at a moment’s notice!

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