Hand-weaving is amongst the oldest crafts in the world. It is also a craft that probably requires the fewest materials: a wooden stick and some threads. In terms of its technical construction too, weaving, in its bare form, consists of one system of threads, the weft, that crosses another, the warp, at right angles, as Anni Albers notes in her key text On Weaving (1956). Yet despite this simple set-up, through the ages and across the world people have created an endlessly rich spectrum of textile designs.
Kente weaving is a prime example of the countless variations that can be achieved with a minimum of elements. Take for instance a look at the early blue and white samples of kente cloths in R.S. Rattray’s seminal volume ‘Religion and Art in Ashanti’ from 1927. Using a basic white thread in the weft and one added colour in the set-up of the warp (blue), Rattray’s collection of samples demonstrates the enormous variety in patterns and designs that can be achieved by playing with the rhythm of the blue threads. By changing the number of consecutive blue threads in the warp, the weaver can create different combinations of smaller or thicker vertical stripes. Once a weaver starts adding blue threads to the weft, or starts applying different weaving techniques, the number of possibilities multiply.
With these three basic elements – warp, weft, and one coloured thread – kente weavers are able to create a multitude of different pattern blocks. Moving from the single pattern to the composition of the kente strip, a whole new level of possible combinations presents itself. Lengthwise, along the warp, different patterns are placed on top of one another like building blocks. Again, the possibilities to vary the design are infinite. In the kente cloth owned by the Palace for Typographic Masonry, for example, taking the first strip on the left, one weft pattern is repeated a number of times, and alternated with a simpler, striped pattern based on the coloured thread in the warp. Here, a white line separates the blocks organising the visual surface into a grid-like structure. Other examples show a more fluid design. Either way, the number of different patterns used within one woven strip tends to be restricted in order to keep the balance and visual rhythm in the overall design (for the same reason kente cloths tend to use a limited colour pallet and complex patterns are balanced with simpler ones).
The real visual complexity of the kente cloth is produced at the seams. This is where the woven strips are sewn together width wise and the pattern sequences which are organised horizontally within those strips are put into a relationship with one another. In some cloths strips the same pattern sequence is used and organised in a half drop repeat. In others, like the kente cloth owned by the Palace, different strip patterns are combined into one cloth which again add another layer to the complexity of the overall design.
How the different strips are organised determines the visual rhythm of the design. In the Palace’s cloth, reading from left to right horizontally (that is in the direction of the weft) the arrangement of the vertical strips can be broken down into a A B C D E F A B C F E B sequence. We also see how the repeat of the blue, green, red and yellow striped warp patterns, creates a kind of visual order, something our eye and brain can hold onto. However, if determining the order of the vertical strips is already a big challenge, trying to decipher the visual organisation of the whole design with its up and down shifting patterns, is like breaking the code of secure software. No matter how hard we try, we do not seem to be able to grasp the logic and order in the kente cloth’s design. A loom and a selection of six different colour threads creates a dazzling visual expression.
Continue reading: 03 Mastering the Variables