Kuba cloth is a hand-woven cloth made from the fib of Raphia Vinifera palm leaves. Kuba people of the Congo first hand cut, and then weave the strips of leaf to make pieces of fabric, often called raffia cloth.
There are several different sub groups of the Kuba people. Each group has different and unique ways to make the fabric. Some make it thicker, longer, shorter, or with different patches. Each patch is symbolic and many times a piece has many different meanings.
The earlier Kuba cloth was made without patches, but due to the brittleness of the cloth, patches were used to repair the frequent tears. Later each patch developed a meaning and each pattern is graphically distinctive and richly evocative of central Africa. The raffia strands are dyed in a variety of earth tones using vegetable dyes.
To western eyes, the cloths are simultaneously bold and intricate, dramatic and subdued, irregular and ordered, as well as asymmetrical and balanced.
There are two main types of Kuba cloth: cut pile cloths and flat-woven cloths with no pile. Many prestige weavings are dyed with twool, a deep red substance obtained from the heartwood of the tropical trees Pterocarpus sp. and Baphia pubescens. The Kuba people believed that twool is imbued with magical and protective properties. When mixed with palm oil, it creates pomade that is applied to the face, hair and body in a ritual context. According to oral tradition, the Pende were responsible for teaching the Kuba how to weave textiles.
THE MAKING OF KUBA CLOTH
The process of making Kuba cloth is extremely time-consuming and may take several days to complete a simple piece. Both men and women contribute in equally important ways to the production of this fabric. First, the men first gather the leaves of the raffia tree and dye it using mud, indigo, or substances from the camwood tree. They then rub the raffia fibers in their hands or wet and pound it in a mortar to soften it and make it easier for weaving.
After they’ve completed the base cloth the women set about embroidering it. They do this by pulling a few threads of the raffia fibers, inserting them into a needle running the needle through the cloth until the fibers show up on the opposite end. They use a knife and cut off the tops of the fibers, leaving only a little bit showing. Doing this hundreds and hundreds of times leads to the formation of a design. Kuba Cloth designs are often planned out ahead of time, and most of the embroidery is done by memory.
The embroidered cloths may be divided into three types:
Cut pile embroideries: The cut pile embroideries look like velvet or velour and have been referred to as “Kasai Velvets” or “Kuba Velours.”Pile cloth is a result of an embroidery technique in which raffia fiber is stitched with a needle under one warp or weft of the base cloth and then trimmed close to the front surface with a small knife. This cut embroidery stitch creates the carpet or velvet like appearance. The pile embroidery fibers are held in place between the crossover of the warp and weft of the base cloth. No knot is used in this technique. Seen from the back, the embroidered fibers are nearly hidden and only a shadow of the pattern is visible.
Uncut embroideries: It is embellished with a stem stitch or blanket stitch is patterned similarly to the pile cloths but by contrast are flat in appearance.
Open work embroideries: This pattern is created by removing warp or weft elements of the base cloth, then embroidering around and through these losses to embellish and to prevent unraveling. (Mack and John, 1980). Sometimes the openwork is created by binding warp and weft in a way that distorts the weave, leaving a pattern of embroidered openwork in the ground fabric
Embroidered cloth units are individually conceptualized and the patterns, numbering 200, have been named and passed through generations. Sometimes these patterns are diagrammed onto the cloth with a writing utensil or stem stitch embroidery. Sometimes the patterns are not diagrammed but are worked out from patterns stored in the embroiderer’s mind. Either way, individuality and creativity are allowed for both within a traditionally bound art form and within the rigid structure of the woven unit.
The applique technique again begins with the individual cloth unit to which raffia pattern elements are secured with an embroidery stitch in single or double rows around the perimeter of each. These cloths seem more random in pattern than the embroidered cloths. More freedom of pattern placement is possible because the pattern elements are not an integrated part of the weave but instead are one layer of raffia cloth placed on top of another. Cut out appliques are a common variation which use the applique technique. Here, positive negative illusion is created by large and sometimes intricately cut out sections of raffia that are embroidered to the base cloth.
Patchwork cloths often are patterned similarly to applique cloths, but with a seemingly negative pattern image. These patchwork patterns are created by cutting and removing areas of the base cloth, thereby creating a pattern of holes which are patched on the front or back surface with raffia of the same shape. Patches are secured to the ground cloth with an interlocked hem and embroidery stitch. Some patchwork cloth is created from small squares of raffia and again joined together with an interlocked hem and embroidery stitch. Elaborate patchwork cloths are created with alternating squares of dyed and undyed raffia which are sometimes decorated with embroidered patterns.