Behind the Beautiful Kuba Fabric of Central Africa

Design Geek Kuba Cloth

The Design Files

Textile weaving is among the oldest human crafts. All over the world, methods of weaving, dyeing and decorating have emerged and evolved until the simple creation of cloth has become one of the most versatile and enduring expressions of human creativity. Like so many inventions it's easy to imagine that it began from simple necessity, either to stay warm or to protect against the elements. And we can be just as sure that those needs were quickly joined by the need to decorate fabric to express such things as religious belief, marital status and wealth. When that happened, weaving ceased to be a purely utilitarian process and became a means of communication and an art form. The Kuba people of Central Africa became masters of this art, and the cloth that they produced has become a favorite international design trend, introducing the world to the history and culture of the Kuba.

Shyaam A-Mbul a Ngoong-Shyaam and the Kuba Kingdom

In the part of Central Africa that is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Kasai, Lulua, and Sankuru rivers surround a lush mixture of forest and savannah (1). At the beginning of the seventeenth century this area, which was already home to the BaTwa, Lele and Njembe, among several other ethnic groups, saw the arrival of the Bushongo (“people of the throwing knives”), led by Shyaam a-Mbul a Ngoong-Shyaam (ibid). According to oral traditions, Shyaam was the adopted son of a local queen who had traveled abroad to the Pende and Kongo nations. Returning enlightened from his travels, Shyaam deposed another local ruler and united the region under his leadership (ibid.).

The Kuba kingdom that Shyaam built consists of eighteen separate Bantu-speaking ethnicities including the Ngeende, Kel, Pyaang, Bulaang, Bieeng, Ilebo, Idiing, Kaam, Ngoombe Kayuweeng, Shoowa, Bokila, Maluk, and Ngongo, all consolidated around the Bushongo (2). The new state was given the name “Kuba,” meaning “the people of lightning” by the Luba, a neighboring state (3). Shyaam introduced new forms of government, in which an elected Bushongo king is responsible to a parliament consisting of official representatives of each Kuba ethnicity. Aristocratic titles up to and including that of king ceased to be hereditary and were awarded based on merit (4). Fierce competition for these positions was one of the major forces behind the fantastic evolution of Kuba weaving arts.

Kuba Cloth on bed pillows

Wealthy Patrons Fund Fashion and the Arts

With so much of the region united under the Bushongo, the Kuba kingdom quickly began to flourish. Wealthy patrons supported fashion and the arts which in turn augmented their status and increased their chances of being named to a lofty post. As a result, the efforts of Kuba artisans became sophisticated and varied including masks, ndop statues (not to be confused with the ndop cloth of the South African Bamileke) and textiles. Among modern art scholars, “Kuba art...has been compared to that of Pharaonic Egypt, Augustan Rome, and Imperial Japan. (5).” While conservators have noted nearly every type of Kuba art for its complexity and expert construction, few have received as much admiration as their remarkable textile products.

Cultural Diversity Defines Weaving Culture for a Kingdom

Among the Kuba, arts such as weaving serve the purpose of creating a shared cultural identity between the various groups that make up the kingdom. Every tribe of the Kuba possesses its own style of weaving, which contributes to the amazing variety of their textiles. Nevertheless, every style fits together within a larger framework that defines weaving culture for the entire kingdom.

How Kuba Cloth Is Made

All Kuba textiles are woven from the fronds of the Raffia Vinifera Palm (6). For that reason, Kuba cloth is often called Raffia cloth, although the Kuba practiced weaving before the introduction of this plant to the tradition (7). Before production, the fibers are gathered and stripped by hand or with a stripping comb (8). They are then woven into cloth on a single heddle loom which is unique to the Kuba, placing the face of the weaving toward the weaver at a forty-five-degree angle. At this point, the cloth is sometimes dyed or treated further to soften the fabric before moving on the next stage. Where certain other cultures assign weaving entirely to women, among the Kuba, the labor of textile creation is divided between the sexes. Men are tasked with the weaving and dyeing of base cloth while women are responsible for embroidering and connecting pieces to create the finished product.

There are four major techniques for producing finished Kuba cloth: embroidery, applique, patchwork, and dyeing. Kuba embroidery can be further divided into cut pile, uncut and open work varieties (9). Cut pile embroideries, often called “Kuba Velours” have a velvet-like texture while the uncut variety display similar pattern work with a flat appearance. “On open work embroideries, 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 (ibid).”

The applique and patchwork approaches are mirror images of each other. The former requires attaching additional pieces of fabric to a base cloth to create a patterned effect. The latter involves cutting away pieces of the base cloth to create the pattern then filling in the gaps by patching the front or back of the base cloth with fabric in the shape of the missing piece (10). It is possible that the patching technique began due to the fragility of the fabric which frequently tore, requiring constant repair. As meanings became attached to the shapes of repaired patches, the process of patching became an art in itself (11). Finally, Kuba fabrics are often dyed, either by juxtaposing dyed and undyed fabrics or by dyeing pieces of cane which have been fixed to the base cloth (12).

Kuba Cloth
AphroChic / Pinterest

Patterns Reflect Shared Religious Beliefs

Patterns used on Kuba cloth reflect the shared religious beliefs of the Kuba people. The Kuba believe themselves to be the children of the supernatural being Woot, himself a son of Bumba the Sky-Father and the Earth-Mother. Woot was tasked with teaching culture to humans, a project that involved weaving not only as a functional pursuit but as a useful means of understanding life (13).

Kuba Believed That Weaving Was a Gift From the Earth-Mother

A gift of the Earth-Mother to the Kuba, weaving was not only a fundamental part of the culture but an embodiment of the intersection between culture and nature. Certain 2-part patterns such as “L” and “V” occur in nature, as does the 3-part pattern “Y.” However, the 2-part pattern “X” does not. The use of both naturally and non-naturally occurring patterns as the foundation of weaving signifies the ways in which culture both includes and separates humanity from nature (14).

Kuba Cloth
Galerie Walu

How the Patterns Are Named

Some forms of Kuba weaving and design are very flexible and free-form while others are rigidly traditional. The designs of the Bushongo, for example, are traditionally very uniform, a characteristic that distinguishes them from the designs of other Kuba groups and signifies the power of the king (15). Designs that have become popular across various Kuba ethnicities are named and handed down from generation to generation. There are currently two-hundred such patterns. Names honor the creators of the pattern, reference a meaningful place or item, or describe an action (ibid).

Kuba Leaders Approved Patterns and Color Palettes

Once the base cloth pieces—which measure approximately two feet by two feet—are finished, they are woven together to create a final product. The grouping of panels does not have to be uniform. Panels displaying various finishing techniques are stitched together to significant effect as patterns blend into each other or change completely. In the case of the long skirts for which Kuba cloth is traditionally woven, this part of the process is overseen by a group of women working under a single leader (16). The leader is responsible for choosing patterns and color palettes as well as inspecting each panel as it is finished. Finally, she will join the pieces herself to create the garment.

Kuba Cloth
Galerie Walu

Kuba Textiles Remain Traditional Despite European Incursions

For centuries after their creation, the textiles of the Kuba kingdom were unknown to all but the Kuba themselves. Due to their central location and the strength of their state, the Kuba were able to stave off any severe incursions by Europeans almost until the turn of the twentieth century. In 1885, the Berlin Conference deemed a Kuba state weakened through conflict with other African nations to be part of the Kasai region. The committee ceded it to King Leopold II of Belgium as part of what would eventually be called the Belgian Congo. Today, despite all that followed, the Kuba nation remains with its people and its traditions firmly intact. Around the world, Kuba cloth and Kuba-inspired designs have become increasingly popular. Authentic pieces are being repurposed, often as indoor pillows or furniture upholstery while sturdier fabrics sporting Kuba-style prints are available for outdoors. In any form, Kuba textiles are a fantastic testimony to the beauty and resilience of this remarkable culture and the perfect way to add a bit of global flavor to your favorite room.