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Pacific Northwest Kente

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I've long admired African Kente cloth for its rich use of color and the ingenious way narrow strips are pieced together to make larger fabrics.

My admiration grew when I learned that each combination of colors and patterns in Kente has a specific meaning and story, which appealed to the writer in me.

Who could resist "Liar's cloth" where a brightly colored warp thread is sneakily carried inside a weft-faced pattern to emerge and continue on the other side of the cloth as if by magic?

The traditions and stories were as compelling as the weavings themselves, so as part of my study, I decided to create a palette of Kente-inspired designs that reflected my locale: the Pacific Northwest.

backTraditional Kente

Kente is the national fabric of Ghana. It is traditionally woven in strips four-to-six inches wide, and then pieced together to make large cloths that are worn wrapped around the body, similar to a toga. Modern-day Africans also fashion Kente cloth into tailored styles, and Kente designs show up on all kinds of textiles from shoes to backpacks.


There are two variants of Kente. The Ashanti people weave geometric weft–faced patterns, inlaying colors to form bold designs. Each design has a name and story associated with it.

The Ewe people weave geometric patterns like the Ashanti, but also weave areas of inlay to create representational motifs: birds, animals, objects, lettering, etc. These motifs—like the Ashanti's geometric patterns— also contain special meanings and symbolism.

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Project details

The top in this article was created from a strip five inches wide and five yards long, and fits a 39-inch bust, 32-inch waist. If you like weaving more than warping, narrow yardage is the way to go!


  • Four-shaft loom
  • Dressform (I used a Uniquely You dressform tailored to my measurements.)
  • Shuttles (I used boat shuttles for the ground cloth and weft-faced areas, netting shuttles for the inlay sections.)
  • Zipper, at least seven inches long. I used a 16-inch separating zipper made by Riri in the colorway Earth, which I cut down to size. The zipper's varigated aluminum and copper teeth nicely complement the colors of the inlay yarns.


20/2 perle cotton from UKI (8400 ypp), in Medium Brown (#25)

I wound a warp of 188 threads, 5-1/2 yards long.

(Note: I originally wound a warp 7 yards long, envisioning a less-fitted top, but a snag on my improvised warping trapeze caused me to lose 1-1-2 yards of warp, creating a "design opportunity." The take-away lesson here is that if you use a baby gate as a warping trapeze, put something over the screw heads...)


For the ground weft, I used the same 20/2 cotton as the warp.


For the pattern weft, I used Xie (100% bamboo, 4200 ypp) in the colors: #479 (medium blue), #481 (dark green), and #483 (medium green); and Infinity (100% soysilk 6400 ypp) in the colors: #517 (emerald green), #501 (copper-brown). Both are manufactured by SWTC.

Despite the difference in weight, I found both the Xie and Infinity to be comparable to a 10/2 perle cotton in grist. I found the Infinity to be a bit more glossy than the Xie, and the combination of gloss and matte together gave the finished cloth extra texture and interest. Limiting the palette to five colors keeps the design cohesive.


I wove this at 36 epi, sett 2 threads per dent in an 18-dent reed. (If you don't have an 18-dent reed, sley 3 threads per dent in a 12-dent reed.)


In the reed: 5-1/4 inches wide


Off the loom: 4-7/8 inches wide

After washing: 4-3/4 inches wide (about 3 percent shrinkage)

Weave Structure

Kente is a two-block weave structure that can also weave plain weave.


Download the draft in WIF format: Download



Weaving the Fabric

I wove the cloth alternating design (either weft-faced or inlay) with sections of plain weave. I'd seen this done in a piece of African Kente cloth loaned to me by my friend, Bonnie Tarses.

woven fabric

Shortly after I began weaving the weft-faced sections, I was glad I had chosen this strategy. Weft-faced weaving in fine threads is slow. It was a joy to get to the end of a section and zip along in plain weave for a while. I also like the way the dark sections of plain weave contrast with the glowing colors of the pattern-weft yarns.

In traditional Kente, the designs are planned out carefully so that, when assembled, the the squares of different patterns line up to create larger designs.

For my exploration, I wove random patterns first, then settled into a design rotation of checkerboard—stripes—inlay. I did not weave to measure, but because I followed the same design each time I created a weft-faced section, they came out approximately the same size.

Weaving the Weft-Faced Designs


  1. checkrboard8 picks of light green to form the border.
  2. 32 picks alternating dark green and blue weft colors.
  3. 2 picks of dark green to change color placement.
  4. 8 picks alternating blue and dark green weft colors. (Note: the color order is reversed from Step 2.)
  5. 2 picks of blue to change color placement.
  6. 8 picks alternating dark green and blue weft colors.
  7. 2 picks of dark green to change color placement.
  8. 32 picks alternating blue and dark green weft colors.
  9. 2 picks of blue to change color placement.
  10. 8 picks alternating dark green and blue weft colors.
  11. 2 picks of dark green to change color placement.
  12. 8 picks alternating blue and dark green weft colors.

After Step 12, work the pattern in reverse from Step 11 to Step 1 to finish off the symmetrical pattern.


checkboard IIAs a variation, I also worked the checkerboard pattern in a green-and-copper colorway. This colorway did not glow the way the blue and dark green combination did, so I did not repeat the pattern.


Stripes:stripes II

  1. 4 picks of copper
  2. 8 picks of light green
  3. 36 picks of light blue
  4. 8 picks of light green
  5. 16 picks of copper
  6. 60 picks of medium green

After Step 6, work the pattern in reverse from Step 5 to Step 1 to finish off the symmetrical pattern.

stripesThis was a stripe design that I played with during sampling, but ultimately decided it was not as visually interesting an the preceding stripe pattern.



Weaving Inlay Designs

The Ewe tradition of Kente includes weaving figurative inlay designs. These are often stylized and iconic, representing everyday plants, items, and objects. Each motif has a meaning. For example, the chameleon stands for the world's change and impermanence. The pineapple represents the fact that gain often comes at a price: the fruit is sweet, but you cannot reach it without being pricked by its thorns.


The inlay is accomplished by alternating a pattern pick with a plain-weave tie down. This makes for a sturdy, reversible cloth that weaves up relatively quickly. (See the inlay portion of the tie-up above for the treadling.) I found netting shuttles helpful in managing the inlay threads. The points were easy to move in and out of the shed, and they held just the right amount of yarn for each representational motif.


stripesTo test the colors against the brown background, I started by weaving a set of stripes. These were woven as selvedge-to-selvedge inlay.I was delighted with the way the bright colors glowed against the dark brown background.

Because the pattern blocks are four threads wide, your "pixel size" for the inlay is 2-3 centimeters wide. This is comparable to what I found in the cotton Kente sample I borrowed from Bonnie.


treesI was especially taken with the way the blue looked like raindrops and played around with that concept by varying the number of plain-weave picks between the blue pattern blocks. I call the inlay to the right, "rain falling on cedar and hemlock." The bright tree in the front reminds me of the color and growth pattern of a cedar, while the one in back, a hemlock. The falling-over tip of the hemlock is not an error, the trees actually grow that way, something that fascinated me when I moved to this region. I wove this free–hand, with no pre-planning or cartoon and reveled in the freedom of designing at the loom.


fernBouyed by my success in actually weaving trees that looked like trees, I started another free-hand inlay design. This one, too, matched my mental image and is something that I consider iconic of the region. It, like the cedar tree, was important to the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest. No one I've shown it to has guessed what it is, however. If you're wondering, here's a clue.




fishAt this point, I was feeling cocky. This was my first attempt at free-hand inlay and things were turning out well...

So I decided to weave a salmon. I've spent a lot more time staring at plants than fish, apparently, because at this point my cartoon-free lifestyle caught up with me. What's at the right is supposed to be a salmon swimming upstream. It has more in common with pictures I drew in third grade. Perhaps one day I'll cover it over with beads...


Draping the Top

As far as I know, there are no commercial patterns for fabric five inches wide, so I used draping to design my own pattern. Draping on a dressform is much easier than flat-pattern work. You can see right away if the garment is working and try different things to fix it during the design process. no pre-testing with muslins needed.

I started by draping the strip around the dress form to form 'V's in the front and back. I like the slimming effect of v-neck garments and the five-inch wide fabric flowed smoothly over the shoulders. I put two matching weft-faced sections at the top of the shoulders, for symmetry.

A happy accident caused the two blue-and-green weft-faced panels in front to line up and an create a flattering upwards diagonal. This also placed the figurative inlay on the front of the garment in a tasteful way. Cutting off the front of the strips gave me cloth to wrap around the waist.

With the front sorted out, I turned my attention to the back of the garment. Another happy accident placed two weft-faced panels opposite each other over my shoulder blades. I also liked the way the fiddle-head fern inlay ended up looking like a tattoo on the form's lower back. I brought the waist band around to the back. Because of the way I am shaped (I have a curvy waist) I had to pivot the band to get it to lay flat. I liked the slimming diagonal this created along center back. Each body is unique, so you will stumble across your own happy accidents.


With the basic structure of the top in place, I went back to the front and filled in some of the gaps, for modesty's sake.

One of the reasons I bought a Uniquely You dressform (as opposed to another brand) is that because it is a soft squishy body, you can pin directly into it to hold the fabric in place during draping.





This was especially useful at the end where I was running out of fabric (see warping note) and having to get a bit creative.

At the end, all I had left over was a scrap less than two inches long!

After all this careful draping, I knew there was no way that I (with my nascent sewing skills) could sucessfully transfer the cloth to a sewing machine without some of the pins shifting, so I sewed the top together by hand, working directly on the dress form. I had to be careful not to accidentally sew the top to the dress form.

After all this weaving and hand-sewing, I couldn't insert just any old zipper into the back. I found a pretty zipper from Riri at my local sewing shop. It has large metal teeth—a definate fashion statement—but given how wild the garment already was, it fit right in. The metal teeth were variegated in copper and brass tones that set off the weft-pattern yarns beautifully. I wanted a separating zipper so the garment would be easy to get on. The smallest size in the separating version was 16 inches, so I ended up cutting down a 16-inch zipper to fit the top. Like the rest of the garment, it was hand-stitched in place.

pocketAs an added flourish, I added a little pocket right above the salmon, perfect for an iPod, a leaf, or the less-than-two-inches of fabric I had left over!

The result of all this weaving, draping, and hand-stitching? An art-to-wear top that fits me like it was designed and made for me...which it was!



Syne MitchellSyne Mitchell has been an aspiring seamstress for nearly twenty years. Kente cloth was her first foray into the weaving traditons of a foreign culture. And if they say you can know a man by walking a mile in his shoes, perhaps you can also begin to understand him by treadling five yards in his weave structure.