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  • Your Ultimate guide to Kuba Cloth

    11 min read

    two people lying on a bed under a kuba cloth throw from the congo

    The legend of the Kuba Cloth

    The Kuba Kingdom was founded in about 1625, and there were over 18 different tribes who enjoyed the security and harmony the kingdom offered

    Congo kuba cloth throw and blanket on white bed from thula tula

    The legend of the kuba cloth is born

    Africa has long been blessed with the creative and artistic excellence of its different people. Kuba cloth is unique to the artistic Kuba people, one of the many tribes that made up the Kuba kingdom, which flourished between the Kasai and Sankuru rivers in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo).

    The Kuba Kingdom was founded in about 1625, and there were over 18 different tribes who enjoyed the security and harmony the kingdom offered. Each of the tribes had its own identity and traditions; however, they were united by their common Bantu ancestry and shared cultural values.

    The inclusive diversity of the Kuba Kingdom brought about political stability in the region as well as great economic and artistic achievements. Kuba people are known for their basketry and perhaps for the scarification body art of the women, but above all, Kuba cloth is what defines these remarkably artistic people.

    The kuba Cloth Patterns And Their Journey Through Time

    The Kuba Kingdom’s control over the ivory trade accumulated immense wealth for the royalty within the kingdom, leading to an explosion of artistic expression in Kuba cloth colors and designs.

    Kevin Tervala, the associate curator of African art at the Baltimore Museum of Art (United States), sent samples of Kuba cloth to New Zealand to have their carbon dated. If anything, he would be able to place the pieces on a timeline so he could follow the storyline of the different Kuba cloth patterns in their exhibition.

    What he discovered was quite stunning because the earliest Kuba cloth patterns were barely visible. In contrast, the later patterns were bold and intricate, eccentric and harmonious, dramatic yet subdued. The changes can be attributed to the desire and need for power and status within the kingdom.

    Kuba cloth, as well as sculptures, masks and beadwork, were commissioned by royalty and either worn or prominently displayed on ceremonial occasions.

    Image By Ismoon (talk) 20:38, 21 September 2019 (UTC) - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wiki 

    Kuba-Bushoong culture. Democratic Republic of Congo, Kasai region. Fibers of raffia palm ( Raphia vinifera ), vegetable dye (tukula wood, charcoal). Muséum de Toulouse, France

    Patterns and designs of the Kuba Cloth carry messages

    Historians cannot be certain if the patterns on the Kuba cloth actually carried a message or had a significant meaning because these historical facts have been diluted through time. It is presumed that because the tribes in the kingdom were autonomous, each would have placed a different significance on the many patterns they created.

    Kuba Cloth Designs hold great significance

    Some historians believe that each design or pattern carried great significance for the wearer, a common trait in most traditional African textile designs and patterns. The patterns carry a strong visual message that defines a person’s status and standing within the community.

    Kuba cloth designs go back centuries

    The earliest Kuba cloth piece in the Baltimore Museum exhibition dates back to the mid-1700s and was created with a single color, now a faded blood red with a repetitive triangle pattern around the border. Later patterns become bolder, mostly black and tan, and here again, the patterns are repetitive and give a sense of flow to the cloth.

    Kuba Cloth designs evolved with the help of royalty

    Royalty in the Kuba Kingdom flamed the evolution of Kuba cloth designs by investing heavily in Kuba cloth wardrobes to portray their wealth and status to their subjects and outsiders.

    Designs and patterns differed greatly from tribe to tribe

    There were constant comparisons of what designs were the best and most pleasing to the eye. Within each tribe, the significance and meaning of the design would have differed. Yet, there would have been a central theme of the time incorporated into the designs.

    In contemporary times one need only see the fuss made about outfits worn to any of the annual horse racing events to get an idea of what the kings and royalty in the Kuba Kingdom were faced with.

    The best and most significant designs were always reserved for the king while other designs filtered down to his subjects.

    Close up of a thultula congo kuba cloth throw

    Colonization and the Kuba cloth pattern progression

    By the mid to late 1800s, Belgium colonizers focused on the abundance of rubber in the Congo region, which created a new threat to the kingdom. It sparked the necessity to portray power and authority more than ever within the kingdom, which meant bolder Kuba cloth designs.

    The visualization of power and authority was paramount to the kings. As the colonizers applied pressure on the indigenous people, the visualization increased in urgency and importance.

    The Kuba Kingdom resisted colonization much longer than other parts of Belgium Congo. At the turn of the 20th century, the kingdom gradually opened up to trading with Europe. But this was only after the Belgium administration had changed to a more bureaucratic dispensation.

    Despite robust trade, the Kuba people did not invest in European fabrics but rather maintained their loyalty to Kuba cloth as it carried traditional significance.

    From that point, Kuba cloth or textiles became a sought-after commodity. Market demands remain high and especially after the DRC gained independence in 1960. Kuba patterns have mesmerized many famous people throughout history. The French painter Henri Matisse kept a few Kuba cloth pieces in his studio and was utterly fascinated by their instinctive geometry.

    Map of the Kuba Kingdom, Lunda Empire and Luba kingdoms in the Congo River Basin.

    The Making of Kuba Cloth

    Kuba cloth is made from the leaf of the raffia tree or palm, which is cut into strips and woven together to create the fabric. Each sub-group of the Kuba people have their own unique way of preparing and weaving the fabric, with some opting for different weave lengths and thicknesses.

    Because Kuba cloth became brittle over time with use as well as the hot, humid climate of the Congo, the need to patch holes became necessary. The patches or raffia cloth flow with the base pattern, but often, patches will add meaning to the underlying message of the original pattern. The addition of patches led to patterns being uniquely arranged to tell a story.

    It is the duty of the men to gather young fresh leaves, cut, and dye them using vegetable and mineral dyes. The Camwood tree is used for red, brimstone tree for yellow, mud, charcoal, and various plants for black and brown, while white is derived from clay. They will soften the fibres by rubbing them in their hands before weaving the fabric. A loom set at 45 degrees is used to weave the fabric, and the weaver sits beneath the loom and weaves with his hands above his head. The loom is only used for raffia and not any other yarn.

    Women use sophisticated embroider, appliqué, and other techniques to finish the cloth, which is very time-consuming. Interestingly, the embroidery of patterns is done mostly from memory. The cut pile embroider technique gives the cloth a unique velvet-like appearance, showing just how effective the finishing actually is. There is also a post dyeing process that the women are responsible for.

    The creation of Kuba cloth is achieved through a combined effort, but the tasks were specific for both men and women.

    Women and man lying on bed under a kuba cloth throw

    other great tribal African blankets

    What is Kuba cloth used for

    Historically Kuba cloth was used as sleeping mats and to make skirts worn by both men and women. Men wore a single skirt while women wore both a skirt and an overskirt.

    Although used and worn on a daily basis, the cloth held great significance in ceremonial affairs like funerals, where attendees would dress in their finest Kuba cloth. The body of the deceased was adorned and buried with the cloth as a sign of respect.

    Skirts and overskirts are predominantly made from panels that are joined together in the finishing stages. The average length of a woman’s skirt can be up to 25 feet long, while men’s skirts can be up to 30 feet long.

    Traditionally, Kuba cloth was also used as decorative pieces in the home.  The patterns are rich and pleasing to the eye, while the colors compliment each other and accentuate the intricate designs that are rooted in Kuba culture. As a highly prized fabric, contemporary uses of the cloth include blankets, throws, scatter cushions, placemats, wall hangings, as well as garments.

    The blankets and throws are lightweight, comfortable, and come in a range of designs and colors that draw attention but are not hard on the eye. 

    Kuba cloth designs have been passed through generations for centuries and remain a monument to the creative and artistic talent of the once-great Kuba Kingdom.

    Congo kuba cloth throw or blanket on a chair folder

    The remarkable journey of the Kuba cloth

    The people of the Kuba Kingdom thrived in unity through diversity, where the individualism of each tribe was respected and promoted.

    Out of this, several different weaving, embroidery and finishing techniques were developed within the different tribes of the kingdom.

    This creative freedom manifested through a demand for bolder and more elaborate patterns and designs. Kuba cloth became a status symbol that visualized the standing and importance of the wearer.

    The unique weaving and embroidery techniques stood the test of time and are still enjoyed and appreciated today. 

    Kuba cloth throw and blanket over a bed

    Kuba cloth remains a prominent part of the people of the DRC. The fabric has been embraced the world over. Very few changes have been introduced in creating Kuba cloth. Still, one notable change is the use of machines to give the cloth a more polished finish that many views as aesthetically pleasing.

    Kuba cloth has travelled a truly remarkable journey, and older cloth pieces maintain and increase their value. Contemporary Kuba cloth brings home the essence of African creativity and ingenuity, adding a degree of sophisticated ambience in its use and application.

    FAQ - The Questions You want Answered

    What is the origin of Kuba?

    Kuba is a cultural group that is indigenous to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is located in Central Africa.

    The Kuba people are believed to have migrated to their present-day homeland in the DRC during the 16th century and settled in a region now known as the Kasai region.

    The Kuba people are known for their rich cultural traditions, including their distinctive artistic and textile traditions.

    Kuba cloth, a woven textile made from raffia palm fibers, is one of the most well-known examples of Kuba artistry.

    Kuba cloth is created using a complex process that involves weaving together narrow strips of raffia palm leaves to create a textured fabric.

    The cloth is then decorated with intricate geometric patterns and designs, often using natural plant dyes and other materials.

    In addition to their artistic traditions, the Kuba people have a rich cultural history that includes developing a complex political and social system.

    The Kuba kingdom, established in the 17th century, was divided into numerous smaller chiefdoms, each with its ruler and system of government.

    The Kuba kingdom was known for its centralized authority, complex system of court etiquette, and elaborate artistic and cultural traditions.

    Today, the Kuba people continue to live in the Kasai region of the DRC, where they have preserved many of their cultural traditions and practices, including creating Kuba cloth and other art forms.

    Where is Kuba cloth from?

    Kuba cloth is a textile that the Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa traditionally make.

    The Kuba people are known for their intricate weaving and embroidery techniques, which they use to create beautiful and complex geometric patterns on their cloth.

    Kuba cloth has a long history in the region and is often used for ceremonial purposes, such as weddings and funerals.

    Today, Kuba cloth is popular among collectors and designers for its unique and striking aesthetic.

    What is Kuba cloth used for?

    It is traditionally made from the bark of the raffia palm, which is pounded into strips, dyed with natural pigments, and woven into various patterns and designs.

    Kuba cloth has traditionally been used by the Kuba people for various purposes, including clothing, ceremonial dress, wall hangings, mats, and even currency.

    The cloth is often embellished with decorative embroidery, applique, or patchwork to add texture and interest.

    Today, Kuba cloth is prized by collectors and designers for its unique and striking aesthetic.

     It is often used in home decors, such as pillows, curtains, and upholstery, as well as in fashion, such as handbags, jackets, and skirts.

    Kuba cloth can also be used as a statement piece in art installations and gallery exhibits.

    What is Kuba made out of?

    It is made from the bark of the raffia tree, which is beaten into flat strips and then woven together to create a fabric.

    The strips are often decorated with geometric patterns using dyes made from natural materials like plant sap, mud, and indigo.

    What is the most luxurious cotton in the world?

    Several types of cotton are considered among the most luxurious in the world, each with its unique characteristics and qualities.

    Here are a few examples:

    1. Egyptian Cotton: Egyptian cotton is often regarded as the most luxurious cotton in the world. It is grown in the Nile River Valley and is prized for its long, silky fibers, which produce a soft, strong, and lustrous fabric. Egyptian cotton is also known for its ability to absorb dyes, resulting in deep, rich colors.
    2. Sea Island Cotton: Sea Island cotton is a rare and expensive cotton that is grown in the West Indies, specifically in Barbados, Jamaica, and the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia in the United States. It is known for its extra-long staple fibers, which make it exceptionally soft, firm, and silky.
    3. Supima Cotton: Supima cotton is a premium cotton that is grown in the southwestern United States. It is made from extra-long staple fibers and is known for its durability, softness, and vibrant colors.
    4. Pima Cotton: Pima cotton is another type of premium cotton that is grown primarily in the southwestern United States and South America. It has long, silky fibers and produces a soft, strong, and durable fabric.

    These kinds of cotton are highly regarded for quality and are often used to create high-end, luxury textiles and clothing.

    Where is the world's best cotton?

    The world's best cotton is a matter of opinion and can vary depending on personal preference, intended use, and quality standards.

    That being said, some countries are known for producing high-quality cotton sought after by textile manufacturers and consumers worldwide.

    Here are a few examples:

    1. Egypt: Egyptian cotton is often regarded as the most luxurious cotton in the world. It is grown in the Nile River Valley and is prized for its long, silky fibers, which produce a soft, strong, and lustrous fabric.
    2. United States: The United States is a major producer of premium cotton, with varieties such as Supima and Pima cotton grown in the country's southwestern region. These kinds of cotton are known for their extra-long staple fibers, which make them exceptionally soft and robust.
    3. Peru: Peru is known for its high-quality Pima cotton, which is grown in the coastal valleys of the country. Peruvian Pima cotton is known for its softness, durability, and ability to retain color.
    4. Australia: Australia is known for producing high-quality, long-staple cotton known as Australian cotton. This cotton is known for its strength, softness, and bright whiteness, making it ideal for textiles and clothing use.

    Many other countries also produce high-quality cotton, and the specific characteristics and qualities of each type of cotton can vary depending on factors such as climate, soil, and cultivation techniques.

    What does Kuba cloth symbolize?

    Kuba Cloth holds significant cultural and symbolic meaning for the Kuba.

    The geometric patterns and designs on Kuba cloth often hold symbolic significance.

    They can convey information about the cloth's intended use, the status or identity of the wearer, or the social and cultural context in which it was created.

    Here are some examples of the symbolic meanings behind some of the standard designs found on Kuba cloth:

    • The diamond shape: The diamond shape is one of the most common motifs found on Kuba cloth and represents the Kuba people's concept of "mbalax," which refers to the interconnectedness of all things in the universe.
    • The checkerboard pattern: The checkerboard pattern on Kuba cloth represents the idea of balance and harmony and the concept of dualism, in which opposing forces are seen as complementary and necessary to maintain balance.
    • The zigzag pattern: The zigzag pattern on Kuba cloth is often used to represent water, a vital resource in the Kuba people's agricultural society.
    • The cross-hatch pattern: The cross-hatch pattern on Kuba cloth is said to represent the scars on a crocodile's back, symbolizing strength and resilience.

    Overall, Kuba cloth represents the rich cultural heritage and artistic traditions of the Kuba people, and the intricate patterns and designs on the cloth hold important symbolic meaning for the community.

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