Since the 17th Century, there have been groups of people living as a Kingdom in what was once known as the Belgian Congo, became Zaire and are know the Democratic republic of Congo. The largest of the groups are the Bushong. There is an artistic side to the group and the Kuba are well known for their designs that are both decorative and useful. They make baskets, carved objects, and are most well known for their textiles. They are immediately recognizable as they are sometimes bold and irregular and at others, dramatic and intricate.
Producing the cloth
Kuba cloth is made from the Raffia Vinifera Palm and involves both genders and all ages. There are people who collect the raffia, weaving it, dying the cloth and then setting about the decoration. After hand striping the fibres, men weave them on a heddle loom. Cloth tends to measure 26” x 28” as this is what the fibres allow. When joined to other pieces, it is time to dye the Kuba cloth and then send it to be dyed and often beaten to turn it into a much softer piece of material. Skirts are the main item produced and they will be worn for ceremonies and celebrations. Layers are used to make the person look much bigger than they are.
Decorating the fabric
There are four major stages when it comes to decorating the cloth. They are: -
Embroidered pieces can be cut pile, uncut and cut or open work. Cut pile resembles velour; uncut cloth tends to be flat and is stitched by blanket stitch. Open work embroidery entails removing part of the warp or wept and embroidering the area. A Kuba cloth pillow can be made this way. There are known to be 200 patterns followed and are passed from generation to generation. As well as woven cloth, there are tie-dyed fabrics and records of the fabric used for Kuba cloth pillows states that it will be dyed from natural fabric; but, this now seems to be changing. Once pieces of cloth are completed, they are often put together to make a skirt or Kuba cloth pillow using a mixture of designs and techniques. They are becoming an integral part of the design of many homes outside of Africa as well as inside.
ExportA lot of Kuba cloth and Kuba cloth pillows are being produced for export although not all of it is the same quality as that made for ceremonial wear. Although some cloth is stitched by hand, there are many who carry out the process by machine. Products that have been examined are no more than 100 years old as the fabric used for Kuba cloth pillows does not last very long. Restoration is possible, but it is not always appropriate to use western techniques due to cultural considerations. It is known that washing can be precarious, and research needs to be carried out before items in the west can be set up for display.