A friendship between two university professors one of whom is also a weaver and the other a minister led to a collaboration and the creation of special stoles with kente-style patterning and colors. This article is from Handwoven September/October 2021. - Susan
The birth of our kente-style liturgical stoles arose quite simply from workplace lunchroom conversations. In addition to working as an occupational therapy professor, Linda is also a supervising elder of pastors in the Christian Methodist Episcopal church, a denomination formed by freed slaves in the American south soon after the Civil War ended in the 1860s. Tina, beyond her academic roles, is a longtime weaver who has previously woven ministerial stoles in the commonly used liturgical colors of gold, green, purple, and white. When Tina offered to create a stole for Linda’s ministry, Linda requested that it be made from handwoven kente cloth—and so, to our surprise, our kente project began. We began a text and phone call exchange similar to the “call and response” communication frequently heard in Africa to help Tina learn more about kente cloth. Using this new knowledge from Linda, Tina began creating handwoven, kente-style stoles for Linda to share with aging or ill African American pastors in her church district when they need encouragement and support. To extend the African tradition of sharing stories, Tina also includes tiny scrolls containing messages or stories, and she sews them along the bottom edge of each stole’s inner lining.
Colors, Patterns, and Messages
Kente cloth represents a collection of patterns true to Ghanaian identity that also resonates within other African cultures, including those in the diaspora. Different patterns use a variety of colors that have symbolic meanings in Ghanaian culture. In kente, colors and patterns are interwoven to convey a story or theme and symbolize the wearer’s values. Often the woven cloth has a name, such as “Sooner or later, one could stray into another person’s path,” “The extended family is a force,” or “I walk alone.” Tina’s favorite is the evocative, “If you have something to say about me, let me first give you a stool to sit on.” Patterns are fabricated into a plethora of garments across genders, including blouses, shirts, shorts, socks, bow ties, straight ties, hats, bonnets, aprons, dresses, and many other accessories.
In Ghana, kente is worn in various contexts, and one of the most common is to mark the achievement of graduation. This tradition dates back to the late 1950s. The tradition made its way to the United States, and today, kente stoles are commonplace at university graduations. While initially worn only by African American graduates, over the last 10 years, they have been included in more diverse commencement ceremonies and have been worn by Latinx and Native American graduates, among others. Stoles and patterns have also been displayed in parades, Black History Month celebrations, and family reunions.
Kente stoles are also worn by clergy as an expression of African culture in religious ceremonies including funerals, weddings, baptisms, and infant dedications. Tina created a stole for Linda to wear during liturgical meetings and when observing rites of passage. Linda’s stole includes colors significant to her personal journey that also symbolize her strength and determination to overcome personal and ministerial challenges. In Linda’s stole, gold represents a role in leadership, and green represents personal growth and renewal, while black reminds her to remain connected and true to her ancestral land and to God.
Sharing Stoles with Others
After completing Linda’s kente-style stole, we wanted to weave and share stoles with other clergy who could use support and caring. Storytelling is common in African American culture, and ministers can wear and tell their stories through their woven stoles, including their experiences of strength, commitment, and humility. Color choices for these stoles are determined at Linda’s discretion after she communicates with each individual and learns of their illnesses, traumas, or experiences. Black, the most significant color of kente, represents the individual’s spiritual strength and maturity and speaks to the struggle and triumphs of African Americans, especially during the Middle Passage when Africans were taken to the Americas and forced into slavery. Red, another commonly used color in kente, represents blood, political passion, and strength. As African Americans and other marginalized ethnicities recall the bloodshed of their ancestors during political unrest and social injustices, wearing a red stole can be a way to pay homage to those who suffered at the hands of others. Green represents growth, harvest, and renewal. Yellow represents honor, wealth, and royalty. Purple represents Mother Earth, healing, and protection from evil. As colors symbolize aspirations, hope, and inspiring leadership, we believe these kente-style stoles can provide ongoing encouragement to those who are experiencing challenges beyond their control.
Practical Considerations for Kente-Style Stoles
Tina intersperses a black warp with dark purple stripes to provide a neutral and culturally appropriate palette that will showcase personalized weft colors for each stole. She winds a warp long enough to weave three stoles at a time, each of which can have a dramatically different appearance depending on the chosen weft color palette and treadling. In addition, Tina adds extra warp length for sampling weft color combinations. She uses her cell phone to photograph color combinations and test swatches. By switching the view from “color” to “mono,” she can see the gray-scale values. She chooses combinations that offer strong contrasts that will enable crisp blocks of color to emerge in the weaving.
Traditionally, kente is created by interweaving 4-inch-wide bands. To convey an impression of interlacement in these stoles, Tina chose eight-shaft twill blocks to provide the look of bandweaving while maintaining the fluid drape that comes from a single piece of fabric. She setts the 10/2 pearl cotton warp tightly at 30 ends per inch to create a firm twill that ravels very little when cut for shaping around the neck. After wet-finishing and pressing, the cloth is cut along the length of the fabric to ensure matching left and right sides, tapered from chest to neck, edged with lip cord (a commonly used upholstery trim), and then lined with satin. To create a stole that lies flat and smooth after the long left and right sides are sewn together at the neck, the lip cord and lining are sewn into place by hand while being continuously smoothed and flattened. Weight can be added to the stole by sewing fringe along the bottom edges. For these stoles, upholstery-style twisted bullion fringe provides a little more heft than standard fringe. Clergy are able to wear these lightly weighted stoles in windy circumstances and move freely about without concerns that the stole could blow around or slide in either direction while being worn. To keep the patterned sides lined up, the wearer can use a sweater clip, Chinese-style frog closure, or toggle clasp fastened at chest height. In Linda’s case, her clerical robe has a cord on the back yoke that is expressly designed to hold stoles in place, so she does not use a chest fastener.
As a finishing touch for each stole, Tina creates a tiny scroll made from crafting supplies. Cardboard cake pop sticks make good scroll ends, especially when darkened with a marker. She prints a message for the recipient on parchment-style computer paper, glues it to the sticks, rolls it into a scroll, and then ties it with a narrow ribbon. Tiny silver keys available in crafting store bead departments serve as embellishment. The tied scroll is tucked into a black elastic hair tie that has been sewn in figure-eight style into the lining. This enables the scroll to be placed horizontally and secured on both ends. The scroll is easy to remove and enjoy, while the simple hair-tie support secures it perfectly.
Kente-style cloth can also be used for celebrations such as World Communion Sunday. Communion bread loaves look beautiful wrapped in kente, and kente-style table runners and altar cloths can become an integral part of many special occasions. Weaving the cloth is like painting on a canvas and is a beautiful experience of considering history, meanings, and connectedness while weaving treasured textiles.
Note: Tina would like to acknowledge the contributions of Patty Tarrant, stole seamstress.
TINA FLETCHER started weaving in occupational therapy school 43 years ago. She is an occupational therapy professor at Texas Woman’s University and a museum researcher.
LINDA BARNETT is an occupational therapy professor at Texas Woman’s University; she has been an occupational therapist for 25 years and a minister for 22 years.