Kente Cloth and Weaving: Bisa Butler Project

This blog is part of a six-part series focusing on an art project lead by former art educator Carolyn Eby on Bisa Butler. This blog is part five and will focus on exploring Kente cloth. The previous blogs in this series include, Inspiration, Batiks, Collage, and Sewing. The last blog is a Reflection on the whole project. 

Carolyn demonstrates weaving using fabric strips and a large wooden table top loom. Words at the bottom read "Kente Cloth, Bisa Butler Project"

For this lesson, the children learned about kente cloth. Like batiks, Bisa Butler regularly uses kente cloth in her designs, but she does not create or weave the fabric she uses. kente is probably the best-known African fabric. It originated with the Asante and Ewe peoples. Historically kente cloth was worn by kings; today, it is worn as a symbol of pride. People wear kente cloth to important ceremonies like weddings or graduations. kente cloth differs from batik because batik designs are printed onto existing blank fabric, while the designs on kente cloth are created in the weaving process. Learn more about kente cloth here. 

3 image collage, to the left carolyn uses a clear bin with tape strips on top to demonstrate the back and forth motion of weaving. On the top right children touch their bellies mimicking Carolyn, there is a loom in the foreground, on the bottom right Carolyn points out images of Bisa Butlers work on an easel as children lean forward to see better.
Carolyn uses a large plastic bin to demonstrate the weaving process on a large scale.  

While Carolyn did not want the children making or cutting up kente cloth, she did want to introduce the children to the idea of weaving. They handled woven cloth and compared the front of the cloth to the back of the cloth. The classes learned that the root of fabric is in hand woven cloth but that much of the clothes that they wear today have been made by a machine. Carolyn gave the children a couple of different opportunities to experience weaving. She set up a simple standing loom for them to explore and she created her loom using a large plastic bin with duct tape holding down the wrap fabric. This allowed her to space out the warp so the children could more easily weave the weft fabric.  

Carolyn also wanted to carefully discuss the importance of the kente cloth. The children talked about why they do or do not wear kente cloth depending on their cultural background. She also wanted to highlight how this fabric is worn with pride and can represent aspects of a person’s cultural heritage. To explore this idea, she encouraged the children to choose cloth with patterns that might represent who they are.  

On the left a child looks at their piece which features some fabric with special prints and sequins. On the right a child adds some additional printed fabrics
Children added additional fabrics to their pieces that had special meaning to them.

She reached out to the families and invited them to send in old clothes or fabric that they felt comfortable with their child cutting up for this project. In her email to the adults, Carolyn explained that Bisa would use her parents’ clothing when creating her art. Many of the children instantly understood the importance of these clothes from home and many did not want to cut them up even though families had sent these fabrics for the purpose of being used in this project. 

While some children choose not to cut up their old play clothes, others used these family fabrics in unexpected and beautiful ways. One child cut up pieces of their grandmother’s dress to add as finishing touches to their collage. Another child’s family sent in a skirt with bells on it. The child used only the draw strings and bells on their piece; carefully gluing only the strings so the bells could still move. 

A child uses scissors to cup a piece of fabric to add to their collaged batik.

Adding the special fabric was the last step of the project. The children started by creating a batik inspired base, added fabric collage, layered that with sewing designs, and finished their piece by selecting cloth that represented them for finishing touches. Both the children and Carolyn could not have been more thrilled with how the artwork turned out!  

Read Carolyn’s reflections on the whole project in our next blog.