Boasting warm hues and striking patterns, Kuba cloth brings to mind the sunbaked landscapes of the African continent. Spotted on linens and home goods, you’ll find Kuba cloth in some of the most popular home décor stores. But what exactly is this unique cloth?
What is Kuba Cloth?
Kuba cloth is the traditional fabric made by the Kuba people of central Africa ( more specifically, what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). From the 17th century to the 19th century, the Kuba people flourished as part of the Kuba Kingdom, which was founded around 1625 under the leadership of Shyaam a-Mbul. Made of up more than eighteen different Bantu-speaking ethnicities, the Kuba kingdom experienced not only great political and economic achievements but artistic ones as well. While the Kuba peoples’ unique aesthetic has manifested in a variety of art forms-from basketry to scarification-Kuba cloth is perhaps the most famous.
How is Kuba Cloth Made?
Kuba cloth is woven from the strands of raffia palm leaves. The process of transforming the leaves into cloth is a time consuming one: a single placemat, for example, can take up to several days! While many cultures traditionally consider textile-making to be a woman’s job, the Kuba people divide the process between men and women. Men are largely in charge of weaving while women are responsible for finishing each piece.
To start, raffia leaves are first collected. Then, the men strip the leaves’ fibers, dye them, and soften them by rubbing the strands between their hands. Afterward, they weave the fibers using an inclined heddle loom unique to the Kuba people. Once the cloth is woven, women finish and embellish it using sophisticated embroidery, appliques, and other techniques. The finishing process is quite advanced, with some specimens even boasting a velvet-like appearance. Before embellishing the fabric, the men might dye it one more time or soften it further by kneading and beating the cloth.
More Than A Textile
Like many traditional textiles, Kuba cloth holds both practical and symbolic significance. It was used every day in the form of clothing and sleeping mats. It also had special ceremonial uses, and in some instances, was even exchanged as currency. But just as vital as its original uses are the patterns, which communicate the owner’s social status, age, or marital status. Such markers vary across the central African region, as different tribes within the Kuba kingdom are each known for their own distinct visual and material styles.
Though the Kuba Kingdom is no longer recognized as a sovereign political entity, its traditions and artistic heritage remain strong. The Kuba people and other Bantu-speaking groups still fashion beautiful textiles using both traditional and modern techniques. It is thanks to their skills that we can enjoy this beautiful art form right in our very own homes.