Friday, 12 December 2014

African Textiles in Close Up #4: An Asante “asasia” kente cloth at the British Museum.

“Asasia” is the Asante term for the rarest and most obscure type of silk kente cloth. A small number of examples were collected by Venice Lamb and Brigitte Menzel in the 1970s and are now in the Smithsonian and in Berlin Museum respectively, but I have never been able to find one in almost twenty years of searching in Ghana (a report of one available from a dealer on my most recent trip turned out to be good silk piece but not Asasia at all.) So I was pleased when I visited the British Museum textile storage at Blyth House earlier this year to be able to look at and photograph a fine Asasia kente that was previously unremarked among a group of cloths the museum acquired in the 1970s.


So what makes this cloth an Asasia rather than just an especially elaborate silk kente ? In order to answer that we need to look closely at the detailed structure of the patterns.

Weave Structure

Let’s look first at a pattern detail from a regular kente, below.


Ignore the striped background and focus instead on the zigzag diagonal pattern, specifically on the single green diagonal line. Like all these motifs it is created using a technique weavers call “supplementary weft float”, in which an extra thread, green silk in this case, “floats” over and under the striped “ground” weave. We can see (especially if we click for a moment on the picture and look at a bigger version) that what at a distance appeared to be a solid green diagonal is in fact made up of a series of rows (or “picks”) of the weft, in each of which the green goes over a number (actually eight) of the vertical warp threads, then under the next group (8 again) over the next etcetera. Then if we look at the next row of green up, we see the order is reversed so that the “under” sections in the first row and adjacent to the “over” sections in the next row and so on.

If we now look instead at a detail of the “asasia” cloth below we can see that something slightly different is happening.


Let’s look at the green silk diagonals again. Here the first row is the same, floating over 8 threads of the wrap, then under the next 8, over the next etcetera. However when we look at the second row we see that each float overlaps with the ones on the previous row, so that it floats over four of the same warp threads and four more from the next set, , then under and over in overlapping groups of eight. The effect of this is to create the “twill” weave structure we can see in the detail above and below.


The fact that the floats overlap from one row to the adjacent row means that the angle (45 degrees) formed by the designs is steeper than on a normal kente because only four warp threads separate the end of each row rather than eight. Together with the “twill” effect this creates the characteristic and distinctive appearance of the elusive asasia kente.  Below are some more details from the British Museum asasia (Museum reference number Af1979,01.5130.)





So how did Asante master weavers create an asasia kente cloth ? Let’s look first at a drawing from Brigitte Menzel’s book Textilien Aus Westafrika (Berlin:1972) figure#207.


In this sketch the weaver is seated at the right, the narrow set of the unwoven warp threads stretching out through the loom frame (not shown) in front of him, and the small section of completed cloth strip attached to a cloth beam in front of his lap. Nearest to the weaver is the reed or beater that he uses to press each pick of the weft threads closely against it’s predecessors. Beyond that is a pair of heddles – these are attached to a pulley at the top of the loom frame and will be pulled up and down by the weaver using his feet by means of the disks below. In the front one of these heddles loops of string encircle every second thread (the 1st, 3rd, 5th and so on) in the warp, while in the back one another set of string loops hold the other threads in turn (the 2nd, 4th, 6th etcetera.) So when one heddle is pulled down the other is drawn up and the gap or shed between the two sets of warps created. The weaver passes the shuttle holding the weft thread through this gap, beats in the pick of weft with the reed, reverses the position of the two sets using the foot peddles and repeats his actions. This is the basic weaving process used on the narrow strip look throughout West Africa.

In the sketch above though we can see that there is a second set of heddles beyond the first. This use of two pairs of heddles is a technical innovation restricted to the Asante and Ewe (and perhaps a few neighbouring groups) that allows the distinctive features of kente cloth to be efficiently woven. The aspect of this technique that concerns us here is its use to create extra or supplementary weft float patterns.


You will recall above we saw that an Asante extra weft motif is created by floating the additional weft over eight warp threads then under the next eight and so on, reversing the order in the next row. The second pair of heddles groups the warp threads into alternating sets of eight allowing these motifs to be woven: i.e. the front heddle holds threads 1 through 8 in a single loop of string, then 17 through 24 in a second loop and so on, while the back heddle hold threads 9 through 16 in its first loop etcetera.  When the weaver wants to weave a extra weft motif he moves his feet to the second pair of heddles and creates a shed in the warp using them instead of the front pair. He then holds the gap open using a flat piece of wood (the weaver’s sword) and adds the extra weft as needed, as shown in the postcard image above.

To weave an asasia kente however, the weaver required three sets of heddles as shown in Menzel’s rare photo and second sketch below.



With this exceptional setup the first two pairs of heddles are used as above, but the third pair groups sets of eight warps that overlap in fours with those group by the second heddle pair: i.e. front heddle threads 1 through  4 in first string loop, 13 through 20 in the second and so one, back heddle 5 through 12 in first loop, 21 through 28 in second loop etcetera. using these heddles and his weaving sword the weaver holds open a second group of 8 warps that overlaps with the first, thus allowing the distinctive twill effect of an asasia kente to be achieved.


Finally what can we say about the cultural context of asasia cloth use and why were they so rare ? Here we can turn to Venice Lamb and her book West African Weaving (1975).


This 1976 photograph is of the Asante Paramount Chief of Ejisu, Nana Diko Pim III wearing a rare Asasia Oyokoman Adweneasa cloth from Ejisu, Ghana; courtesy Doran H. Ross.

The first point we can note is that the cover photograph, taken in 1972 and showing a chief wearing his asasia cloth, depicts the same chief and the same cloth as Doran Ross was able to photograph four years later.  As far as I can establish these are the most recent published photographs of an asasia cloth is use, a fact that clearly speaks to their extreme rarity.


Venice Lamb (1975:126) noted that this cloth was presented to the Ejisu Stool by the King of the Asante (the Asantehene) in 1896 at the time of the revolt against the British. Lamb argues (I think correctly) that it was only asasia cloths that were the exclusive preserve of the Asantehene  and that they could only be woven or worn with his explicit consent. 


Asantehene Osei Agyeman Prempeh II (ruled 1931-1970) wearing an asasia cloth (1960s ?). Photo Ghana Information Service, scanned from Ross 1998.

At the time of her research in the early 1970s she thought only one weaver remained who could remember the technique, although Ross noted that it was lack of an appropriate order from the Asantehene rather than the technique itself that was the key.  A loom set up to weave asasia, presumably at her request, was collected by Brigitte Menzel , also in the 1970s, and is the collection of the Deutsches Textilmuseum,Krefeld.

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