Activities and Discussion
A. Ananse the Spider and the Creation of Weaving
Virtually all weavers in Bonwire offer two accounts for the introduction of weaving to the Asante area. According to one account, during the time of Oti Akenten (1630-1680), two brothers named Nana Kuragu and Nana Ameyaw were in the forest hunting when they came across the spider Ananse weaving his web. After observing the spider for some time they returned to their home village of Bonwire and introduced the weaving of raffia and subsequently cotton cloth. A spider figures similarly in Ewe accounts.
The finial on the staff shown in SLIDE 6 depicts a spider on its web flanked by two human figures. Its proverb is "No one goes to the house of the spider to teach it wisdom." Ananse is credited with bringing wisdom to the Akan and is considered the originator of many of their folktales and proverbs. The Akan collectively call their folktales spider stories, whether they are about a spider or not. On the staff, the spider is a metaphor for the chief's counselor and by extension the chief and his elders, and on an even broader level, the state itself.
In order to familiarize students with Akan accounts of Ananse the spider, share Ananse stories with your students (readily available in both children's and adults' anthologies of Ghanaian folktales). Then acquaint students with the Asante and Ewe explanations for the creation of weaving. You may follow this with students writing their own creation stories, using the slide cited above as a visual reference. Set up some situations and have students make their own "beginnings of weaving" stones.
B. The Making of Kente Cloth [SLIDES 7 and 8, FIGURES 2.1, 2.2, 2.3]
FIGURE 2.3 (pp. 59-62) presents the steps involved in weaving kente cloth. This series of images begins outside a kente production village near Kpotoe, Ghana and walks through the actual steps of preparing the loom, weaving the strips, and finishing and selling the cloth. Images were taken at different times and drawn from various Asante and Ewe weaving communities.
Though it is difficult to understand the techniques of cloth production without actually sitting down before a loom and weaving, it is important for students to be introduced to and have a broad understanding of these tedious and exacting tasks.
Their appreciation for the complexity of handwoven kente will increase immeasurably. It is recommended that you distribute photocopies of this series of photographs, present and discuss the steps involved, and post this series in your classroom for students to study over time. If students have knowledge of other weaving traditions, have them share these over the course of study. There are many fine children's books which may pique their curiosity in the subject.
While each type of loom requires specific preparation tasks, a general order of events is inherent in all loom weaving. That sequence is briefly (and as simply as possible) discussed below:
- IMAGES 1 & 2: The weaving of kente cloth is centered in particular Ewe and Asante villages and weaving centers. The best known are the Asante community of Bonwire and the Ewe town of Agbosome. The looms are often grouped together in weaving buildings or sheds (as shown in IMAGE 2) or under shaded trellises.
- IMAGE 3: Looms are frequently set up out-of-doors since their outstretched warps (or lengthwise threads) span such a long distance.
- IMAGE 4: Both the Asante and Ewe weave on the horizontal narrow band treadle loom (the basic loom type throughout much of West Africa). Its structure accommodates one or two moveable crosspieces from which one or two heddle pulleys are suspended; these heddles are attached by a cord to a toehold that allows the weaver to raise and lower the threads with his feet. Commercially produced cotton, rayon, lurex or (rarely today) silk is used in the production of the cloth.
-IMAGE 5: The first step of weaving is to wind the skeins of thread off of the skein winder onto bobbins with the bobbin winder. This is often done by boys as young as five who are just learning to weave.
- IMAGE 6: These bobbins are then placed on the warp layer or bobbin carrier. Enough warp (or lengthwise threads) is laid for all twenty four strips of a man's cloth. This process requires walking the warp threads around two poles set about one hundred feet apart. The threads are laid out according to the desired warp stripe pattern. At one end a special procedure of wrapping the threads in a figure-eight around an additional pole maintains the color order.
-IMAGE 7: The weaver must carefully remove the threads from the warp layer and begin the painstaking process of threading the loom. Groups of warp threads are passed alternately through each leash (or eye) of the first and second beddles.
-IMAGE 8: This detail shows two pairs of heddles and a comb-like device called a reed (on the far right) that establishes and maintains a certain number of threads per inch. The pair of heddles on the right of the photo are responsible for the basic ground weave of the cloth. (This pair of heddles here appears droopy or slack because it is not in use or under tension by the weaver.) These heddles work in opposition to each other: when the front one is raised and every other group of threads is lifted up, the opposing heddle of the pair is lowered—and a space is created (called the shed) through which the crosswise or weft threads on a bobbin are passed. The process is repeated: the next time, the other heddle (threaded with the opposing groups of threads) is raised, and the crosswise bobbin passed back through the space, and so forth. A weaving sword would be inserted in the shed each time it is opened, and stood on edge to maintain the open space (easily seen in Image 12). The pair of heddles to the left (the pattern heddles which appear taut in the photo because they are currently engaged by the weaver) is threaded in a different pattern, thereby raising and lowering only certain threads to facilitate the complex pattern blocks woven with additional weft threads. These patterns are woven right along with the basic ground weave.
-IMAGES 9-12: The next group of four images portrays a variety of looms and weavers in both Asante and Ewe weaving centers. Although narrow strip weaving was formerly only the work of men, in some areas today a few women weave, and children assume weaving responsibilities at an early age. One can easily see in IMAGE 12 a section of the woven cloth that shows the stripe pattern of the lengthwise (warp) threads and the checkerboard-like pattern section created by the extra pattern (or supplemental) wefts.
-IMAGE 13: This image clearly shows a diamond shape weft design in progress. Notice how many bobbins are placed before the weaver to use, as the pattern demands. As the weaving progresses, the woven cloth is rolled onto the breast beam. The entire strip will be woven and removed from the loom, and the process repeated until a sufficient number of strips is woven for an entire cloth.
-IMAGES 14 & 15: The finished strips are sewn together lengthwise either by hand or by machine. Hand sewing is still considered the most desirable, but most cloths today are machine sewn.
-IMAGES 16-20: Kente is sold throughout Ghana in small specialty shops, such as that of Samuel Cophie [IMAGES 16 & 17], or in larger textile markets in Accra and Kumase. (Samuel Cophie, whose weaving is highly respected and sought after, is of Ewe ancestry and resides in the Asante kente center of Bonwire.) These and other kente business ventures, as one would expect, take advantage of kente designs on their signage to advertise their products.
C. What's in a Cloth?
Following students' study of the steps involved in the making of a kente cloth, you may wish to engage them in an analysis of the time and material required for a "double woven" Oyokoman man's cloth [SLIDE 13]. Photocopy and distribute copies of FIGURE 2.4 ("What's in a Cloth?") with questions that address the materials and labor required to complete such an intricately woven man's cloth. Depending on the age of your students, questions might focus on the amount of thread required, proportions of total skeinage required by specific colors, production costs and profit, number of hours of labor required, etc. While the authors of this unit of study believe that art and culture studies need not be justified in the name of math and science, we nevertheless believe strongly in an integrated curriculum. Possible math activities would enhance students' understanding of the planning and production issues in the weaving of kente. You may formulate suitable questions; older or more capable students may make up their own questions for classmates to answer.
D. At the Loom
Refer to the background statement on looms and the images related to the making of kente cloth [FIGURES 2.1—2.3]. Note that traditionally it was Asante men who wove, but today a few women also weave. Why do students think the practice is changing now? Students could research other gender divisions of labor among the Asante. Can they draw any comparisons to work of men and women in the United States today? Remind students of the proverb "The thread follows the needle" which emphasizes the wise guidance a young person or novice can gain from a senior, more experienced individual or teacher in various learning and social situations.
1. Call attention to SLIDES 7 and 8 depicting a loom and a child winding thread onto a bobbin. Inform the class of the role of children in the weaving process. Children begin assisting at the age of five, winding bobbins; soon they are laying the warp, and the level of their participation gradually increases. By the age of ten or twelve children are proficient weavers. Lead a discussion on children's roles and responsibilities.
-As students viewed the weaving process photos, did they observe children assisting adults? In what ways? What other ways might they be of assistance?
-What are the advantages of assuming responsibility at an early age?
-How have students helped an adult in his or her work? (Even setting the dinner table qualifies.)
-What did they learn while helping and working with the adult?
-What is gained in working at a young age? (Learning responsibility, assuming new challenges, gaining skills.)
-Have they noticed children working or taking part in any other situations in the slides they've viewed? (Acting as a sword hearer, taking part in a procession.)
-When might working as a child be seen as a negative? (Excessive child labor in terms of difficulty and in amount of time spent at a task, kept away from school to work in fields, factory, home.)
2. Discuss with the class the importance of assuming more responsibilities as they get older. Can they think of anything that they feel ready and able to do now, that they were not ready for last year or the year before?
Have them talk to their parents about an added responsibility that they would like to assume. Send a letter home to the parents explaining that this comes as a classroom assignment. In the letter enlist the adults' aid in working with the student to set a reachable goal and one that is appropriate for the family.
As a homework assignment have the student and family make a plan for work to be completed within a time period that works well for your class. It would be optimum for this exercise in added responsibilities to extend over several weeks and to involve several stages (the difficulty of the task should increase in steps). Students should bring in an outline of their plan and when the period is over they (and their parents, if possible) should report on the success of the project.
3. Asante children learn to weave on a special simple loom especially for novice weavers. At a young age they practice interlacing warps and wefts, the basic framework of weaving. Without a wooden loom your class could still become involved in many aspects of weaving where one set of materials intersects with a set of the same or different materials. Try paper weaving, weaving using straws, or off-loom weaving with yam, fabric or materials from nature such as grasses, feathers, straw, etc. [FIGURE 2.7} Simple looms can be made by poking holes in a styrofoam tray for warp threads to go through, or by notching the ends of a piece of cardboard to accommodate the warps.
E. Communicating with Clothing
1. Discuss what can be learned by observing or studying textiles (or clothing). Ask what messages textiles and clothing convey? Perhaps among the responses you'll elicit, the students will mention certain basic principles of dress. Clothing can
-identify a group of people and signify affiliation
-denote, the rank or status of the wearer
-signify the occupation of the wearer (i.e., police uniform, construction worker's hard hat)
-communicate the wearer's notions of beauty and style
-be a clue to current fashions, past fashions or perhaps those of the near future
-communicate the age, the gender, the occupation of the wearer
-tell where the wearer has been (i.e., a T-shirt from Hawaii)
-make known what the wearer likes or supports (i.e., a Dodgers cap)
2.. Have members of the class talk (or write) about an article of clothing or ensemble each now owns or owned in the past. They should describe it, and draw a picture of it. What makes that article or outfit so memorable? What does that clothing tell about the student? How does the student feel when wearing the ensemble? Older students can write an analytical essay on a favorite dress ensemble, commenting on how it addresses some of the principles of dress listed above.
Are there similarities in the student responses? Did the clothing start out special or become so because of occasions on which it was worn? Are students more apt to feel good in clothing they select for themselves, or in clothing that comes to them because someone else chose it for them? Do the responses of class members have any commonality or is there a wide range of responses? Did the opinions of others affect the feelings of the individuals when the ensemble was worn? What do they think the outfit said about them to others?
Give the class an assignment to interview someone older in the family about an article of clothing she or he wore in the past. Why does s/he think that piece of clothing has remained in memory? Can any comparisons be drawn between the responses of the student and that of his/her older family member?
3. Show SLIDE 2 of the Ejisuhene (chief of Ejisu) and have students interpret clues in his dress. What messages are conveyed by the Ejisuhene's dress? Do they get any clue about his rank or status? Do they think that the ensemble looks "rich?" Could they tell anything about where he lives? Refer also to questions asked about their own clothing in the activity above. Be sure the class can identify the cloth the Ejisuhene wears as kente cloth. Let the students know that, in the past, the ownership of kente was the prerogative of royalty and rank. That is not the case today, and kente is worn by people of any status in Ghana (who can afford to buy it), and indeed, by people all over the world. Do your students feel that people outside of Ghana who wear kente are making any kind of statement? If so, what would that statement be? Remind the class that as kente communicates messages about the Asante wearer, so do their clothes tell about them.