Cloth has always had a very important social function in the Ashanti kingdom. The colours and type of fabric worn underscore events and indicate the ceremonial occasion, as well as differences in status and gender. The patterns and motifs represent proverbs, anecdotes and the history of the Akan people – a history that has seen their migration to Kumasi, wars, the creation of the monarchy, the creative myth, the Golden Stool that descended from the skies and came to rest on the knees of the prince of the Oyoko clan, subsequently the provenance of all future Asanti kings. It is a means of ongoing cultural expression. The Ashanti divide their fabric into two categories: N’tama, which is made largely of cotton with only a low percentage of silk and is worn by the poorer classes; and Asasi, made of pure silk and created uniquely for the royal family. However things are beginning to change and the possibility of buying the most prestigious textiles is no longer always dictated by social provenance. The Ashanti claim to have learned the art of strip weaving (sewing together more than two pieces of cloth) from the Kong craftsmen of present-day Ivory Coast. In fact cloth is made from long, narrow strips that are cut to size and then joined together to form a rectangular drape only in West Africa. The fabric is woven on a double-heddle loom in strips varying from 2.5 cm to 45.70 cm in width that are then cut to size and stitched together. Ashanti strip fabrics have a characteristic check design and, unlike those of the Ewe people, they do not use figurative elements. Each piece of cloth is associated with a proverb or a symbol that extends over the entire fabric.
Blue, green, yellow, red and magenta are the colours traditionally used to dye the main body of the voluminous men’s toga-style drapes, with contrasting colours in the weft-faced cloth and weft-float decorations. Textiles are generally made from silk or rayon, but not the simple cloths used for mourning; these are made from white cotton or are dyed indago. The women wear two smaller pieces of cloth with a pattern resembling that worn by the men. The Ewe are considered the most skilled weavers in West Africa; versatile and adaptable, they work in three regions of southeast Ghana. Traditionally the Ewe have always preferred using cotton, but today much of their fabric is made from rayon, fashioned in the Ashanti strip weave and destined for the Afro-American market. The Ashanti weavers sit at wooden looms equipped with disks of calabash or, more commonly today, of rubber sandal that attach to the toes and activate two pairs of heddles when the work at hand is particularly complicated.
The warp – often measuring 60 m in length – stretches out in front of the weaver, with the ends held down by a rock mounted on a wooden bobbin. As the weaving proceeds, the craftsman folds the finished cloth around a beam at the front of the loom. A length of cloth consists of between 16 and 24 strips that are cut to size and sewn together along the selvedge. The art of weaving is traditionally a male prerogative. Women’s cloth is formed of two pieces that are wrapped tightly round the body. Men’s cloth, by contrast, is fuller and hangs loosely like a toga. In Ghana, as in many other parts of Africa, funerals are highly symbolic and mourning is expressed in dark, gloomy colours.
In Ntonso village near Bonwire (the heartland of Ashanti weaving) and in Kumasi’s large commercial district, garments are made to order from hand-printed cloth called Adinkra, which is traditionally linked to mourning. Older men print decorative motifs such as ferns or moons on industrial fabrics made in China, using templates cut into the shell of a special kind of pumpkin. Adinkra fabrics that are destined to be worn at funerals or for mourning are dyed red or black, but others retain their white background. People unable to afford a new Adinkra cloth dye an old one in a darker colour by steeping it in an infusion made from bande tree bark.
The textile decorations are cut into the hard shell of a pumpkin. A grid is drawn on a piece of cloth using a length of bamboo and the decorative motifs are repeated over several rows inside each square by moving the slightly rounded template across the fabric. The craftsmen each complete two pieces of cloth per day and the fabric is then spread out during the night to absorb the morning dew.
Today the Ashanti and neighbouring Akan groups are still characterised by the use of brightly coloured fabrics. However there is no doubt that the quality of the cloth and the colours and techniques used in its production are in decline. The ruling classes have less power and this, along with the fact that wealth is in part better distributed and wealthy people demand better fabrics, means that the amount of cloth destined for them specifically has diminished. Orders come from tourists and the foreign market. The irony of this gradual socio-cultural change is that the demand for textiles continues to be fuelled by the Ashanti themselves, but from the stock of fabrics conserved as family heirlooms and not fresh from the loom. One day the cloth will inevitably run out without having been replaced.
The nomenclature of Ashanti cloth is extremely complicated. The names are often known only to the weavers themselves and to the small number of elders who are admitted to the royal court. Most fabrics take their name from the warp pattern, of which there are around 300 known examples. Some are named after people, generally leaders (for example Kwakye, Asare, Amere, Ansaku), or after animals or birds, plants or trees. The fabric known as Amanahyamu (meaning “The entire nation has gathered”) was worn by the Ashanti king for Odwira, the most important national festival during which subordinates and subjects would gather at the royal court to confirm their submission. The Ashanti king had total control over the use and distribution of new fabrics and the first pick of new patterns with potential exclusive use rights.
Obiyaa N. Agbo