Sunday, 14 July 2013

Textiles from Ghana

Some time ago I realised that many of the fabrics that appealed to me in London street markets were made in Ghana. I have never got round to exploring this more, and this course seems like a good opportunity.

At there is a piece written by a Professor at Ghana University which gives a good summary of the different kinds of cloth and something about their history. What is written here is mostly based on that.


This is woven cloth made by master weavers for the Kings of Ashanti, is highly prized, and there are two overall styles, Ewe kente and Ashanti kente. The Ewe style is more subdued in colour and mood, but there has traditionally been more room for creativity as the Ashanti kente range was limited by being used in court. In the 18th century Ashanti weavers used silk from European imports to add shine to their patterns.

The technique is strip weaving. Strips are made about 4 inches wide and several foot long on a small loom and sewn together. They are worn like a wrap or toga and differently for men and women.

The colours are bright and attractive, for ceremonial occasions. Colours and patterns have symbolic significance. Each pattern has a name, which commemorates important events in the lives of kings.  'One assumes dignity when one wears kente.'
You can see the weight of it, the strips, and the complexity of the pattern, from this photo.

Meanings of the colors in Kente cloth: (From Wikipaedia entry on Kente cloth)

  • black—maturation, intensified spiritual energy
  • blue—peacefulness, harmony and love
  • green—vegetation, planting, harvesting, growth, spiritual renewal
  • gold—royalty, wealth, high status, glory, spiritual purity
  • grey—healing and cleansing rituals; associated with ash
  • maroon—the color of mother earth; associated with healing
  • pink—assoc. with the female essence of life; a mild, gentle aspect of red
  • purple—assoc. with feminine aspects of life; usually worn by women
  • red—political and spiritual moods; bloodshed; sacrificial rites and death.
  • silver—serenity, purity, joy; assoc. with the moon
  • white—purification, sanctification rites and festive occasions
  • yellow—preciousness, royalty, wealth, fertility


Hand-printed traditional textiles that were used for funerals of high status people from the 18th century. Traditionally in sombre colours with black paint for the symbols. Made with carved gourd stamps on imported cotton. The stamp patterns have meanings.

Adinkra symbols from
Adinkra hand-carved gourd stamps
which has some other interesting info about Adinkra

Adinkra cloth wrapper belonging to King Prempeh 1
Ghana c1896 imported cotton, black paint
National Museum of African Art

Fanti cloth

Appliqued and embroidered textile made for high status Fanti men.
The appliqued symbols have meanings relating to the strengths and exploits of the man wearing it, and are used for ceremonial purposes. The colours are bright and clear.

Machine-made fancy print textiles

This is the cloth that is worn by most. It is different from the cloths described above in that its production is less localised and it is made over much of West Africa so is not just Ghanaian (although there are local differences). 

Wax-printed cloth is the more prized version, roller printed cotton being cheaper and more freely available. The difference is that wax-printing leaves the pattern on both sides of the cloth, and roller-printing is more able to give sharp detail and can use photographic images.

African wax print fabric, from 

Colonial Dutch tried to undercut the indonesian market for Javanese batik by producing machine-made versions of similar style. It didn't work in Indonesia, but Ghanaians loved it. They adopted it for themselves and added traditional motifs and associated proverbs to the patterns.

There is a very readable essay in with more detail about this...

'Lest it seem that the introduction of Dutch wax prints into the West African market happened out of the blue, West Africa had always been a textile market, since fabrics have been important aspects of African social life for a very long time. As early as the 16th century, the English, Dutch and French were selling batiks and other types of textiles manufactured in Asia, such as the “guinea cloth” and Indian produced cottons from Pondicherry, now Puducherry, to West African markets. Thus consumers were quite accustomed to globally-produced fabrics. The introduction of Dutch batik-inspired wax prints lead to the peak of foreign-manufactured fabrics in West African markets in the 19th century.'

Wax printed cloth "Weni behu naaso w'ano enntumin nnka" (Your eyes can see, but your mouth cannot say). Printed in Ghana, 2006. - See more at:[term]=textiles%20say&filters[primary]=images&filters[secondary]=videos&sort=1&o=2#sthash.9IGygaaA.dpuf

Ghana-produced textile companies sell to the English Market. I particularly like the idiosyncratic look of this one.
Vlisco fabric order no. VL035914.04

Batik, tie & dye, wax resist cloth

There was a surge in the local production of these in Ghana in the 1960s and 70s through Intermediate Technology Transfer initiatives. There was a dip in popularity for these fabrics, but the market has picked up again now. They generally use locally produced cotton and use traditional motifs and sometimes produce commemorative fabrics to mark important events. 

These cotton fabrics, unlike the Kente and Adinkra cloths, can be cut and sewn into clothes rather than being used only as drapes or togas. The dress patterns often incorporate large elaborate sleeves and shoulders. 

I'm thinking it might be fun to try out some wax resist dyeing of my own. Perhaps even using images from cowrie exporations. I haven't done a lot of repeat patterns and this looks like an inspiring way to explore this a bit more. 

I'm also thinking about how I have made quilts in the past in reference to an important personal event, like my wedding, but somehow this cultural idea of recording an important event for society in that way seems a little different. Perhaps a funeral cloth marking the introduction of welfare reform? The obvious one for now is the birth of an heir to the throne, but as a bit of a republican that doesn't inspire me. for thought.


1 comment:

  1. Wonderful information, beautifully put together! Can't wait to explore the rest of your blog!