A buyer's guide to Kente cloth
Ghanaian Kente cloth is known across the world for its lively colours and quality. Buying can be a minefield. Time Out offers some expert tips
© Daniel Neilson
Vivid colour and complex patterns are an essential part of the landscape in Accra and this is reflected in the textiles worn by Ghanaian women. In the typically bold palette, jewel tones, fragmented floral patterns, illusory monochromes and practically every other conceivable combination of colour and texture are realised. Wildly patterned wax-printed batik cloth is extremely egalitarian in Accra. Street vendors and socialites both wear it. A clear difference in quality may be evident but to the spectator the net effect is of cultural unification. Reinterpreting wax-printed fabrics has become extremely popular, and the results are a gorgeous synthesis of traditional and modern fashion.
One of the most recognisable symbols of Ghana, kente, an Asante ceremonial cloth, represents numerous aspects of Ghanaian ethical, philosophical, social and religious heritage through variations in colour and pattern. Initially, kente was strictly owned by Asante royalty who kept it for social and spiritual assemblies. Hand-woven silk or cotton yarns are spun into four-inch wide lengths to weave kente. These pieces are arranged and hand sewn together to create a large panel. Although machine made kente is now widely available, it is still reserved for formal occasions. The dramatic colour and texture in kente is echoed in wax-printed fabric. It's an attractive surrogate of kente and it too has cultural resonance and legacies.
Ghana inherited the wax printing technique from Indonesian batik imports during the times of the Gold Coast. Ghanaian wax-printed fabrics are commonly designed to allude to proverbs, traditional stories and marital status. Cheaper versions of cloth are produced as uniforms for businesses; these are generally printed with a company name as the main motif. Audaciously printed fabric is also used as an effective tool of mass communication for political parties and religious groups. Wax printed fabric pops up all over Ghanaian life. It is given to guests at engagements, sold at the mall and at the market; it is available in more hues, patterns and prices than any other product in Ghana.
This ambitious diversity in fabric design is due in part to the discerning eye of Ghanaian women, to whom presentation is imperative. Occasion-appropriate dressing is de rigueur; funerals, weddings and engagements all require specific outfits. Most women employ a seamstress. Customers pick a style from a 'calendar,' a poster showing photographs of models in outfits. These designs are usually variations of the kaba (blouse) and slit (long skirt), a common ensemble. It's counterintuitive but it's actually more economical to custom make clothes than it is to buy clothes in a shop.
There is no dearth of design in Accra. More and more people design exciting wax print garments. At the moment, western silhouettes in traditional fabrics are very much in vogue. Sewing is a lucrative business so you'll find a seamstress operating an old-fashioned foot-operated Singer sewing machine in any busy area. Seamstresses tend to be very talented and they can interpret a western design or copy an existing dress. If the customer provides her own cloth, a dress usually costs between GH¢8 and GH¢10.
Where to buy Kente cloth
- Critics choice
The Nubuke Foundation has been in this, its first permanent location, since 2009. In this pleasant building in East Legon is one of the most interesting art galleries in the city. It was set up to provide an artistic space for Ghanaian artists (often in collaboration with artists from other countries) and show off their talents. It has also a philanthropic aim to support artisans around the country.
- 7 Adamafio Close, East Legon, near Mensvic Grand Hotel
- Critics choice
The National Museum is home to some of Ghana’s most absorbing historical finds. TMuch of the display is dedicated to indigenous art and crafts: there are regalia, musical instruments and the all-important royal Asante stools. Other displays include Asante gold weights, currency, instruments, textiles and leatherwork.
- Barnes Road, Adabraka
After the chaos of the Arts Centre, this shop in Osu is a bit of a relief. Much of the same items can be found in the many rooms of this large building, but the prices are fixed. All the usual Ghanaian knick-knacks can be browsed, alongside some older items, textiles and some pretty jewellery from recycled beads.
- Abebresem Street
The loosely defined borders of Makola Market enclose what might be seen as Accra’s most dynamic commercial hub. It’s certainly one of the most entertaining. Hot, noisy and insistent, it’s an initially bewildering sprawl of kitchenware, jewellery, textiles, shoes and anything else your cedi might conceivably buy, hawked from floors, racks, shelves, ceilings and head-perched baskets.
- Kojo Thompson Road and Independence Avenue.
Kaneshie Market is on the road out west of Accra. It is very much like Makola Market – a sprawling chaos of stalls, shops and street vendors. Everything you could possibly imagine can be bought here. It’s also an important transport hub with tro tro and regional buses picking up and dropping off passengers. However, if you wanted to see a market for the experience (and it really is an experience), Makola Market is more accessible.
- Graphic Road and Ring Road West.
- Critics choice
The main branch of Aid to Artisans Ghana is within the Artists Alliance Gallery. Set up to help local artisans create high-quality crafts and sell them at a fair price, this NGO has a wide range of objects for sale. These include furniture, jewellery, bags, wooden kitchen items and Kente cloth, both in contemporary and traditional styles. Items are also for sale in Elmina Castle, Kakum National Park shop and in the Centre for National Culture in Kumasi. Artists Alliance Gallery,
- Omanye House, Accra-Tema Beach Road, Labadi