WAACNewsletter
Volume 8, Number 1, Jan. 1986, pp.2-5

Kuba Textiles: An Introduction

by Ann E. Svenson

The Kuba people of Zaire, formerly the Belgian Congo, live in the fertile lands of equatorial Africa between the Kasai and Sankuru Rivers. They compose a politically and socially complex multi-ethnic Kingdom consisting of 18 distinct sub-groups, each having a history and identity of its own. These groups have been an organized Kingdom since the 17th century but have lived in South Central Zaire much longer. Their unity is explained by participation in a common culture and by the Bushong's domination of the whole group. The Bushong group has the largest population of the 18. Artistically, the Kuba surround themselves with a sophisticated vocabulary of elaborate decorative patterns which are found in architecture, basketry, carved objects, female body scarification and textiles. The embroidered and appliqued raffia textiles produced by the Kuba are the focus of this paper. To western eyes, the cloths are simultaneously bold and intricate, dramatic and subdued, irregular and ordered, as well as asymmetrical and balanced. In all cases they are fluid, visually engaging and full of surprises.

Kuba cloth is woven from the fib of the Raphia Vinifera Palm. Production of these textiles is a multiple stage process which involves the participation of children, men and women of the same clan. The process includes gathering and preparing the raffia fibers for weaving and embroidery, weaving the basic cloth unit, dyeing the embroidery fibers, and embellishing the woven cloth with embroidery, applique, patchwork and dye.

After the fibers are gathered and stripped by hand or with the aid of a stripping comb, the basic cloth unit is produced by men on a single heddle loom. The loom consists of a heddle bar and two horizontal bars between which the warp fibers are extended and secured in groups of fibers or hanks. The lower bar is fixed. Suspended from the upper bar is a cross beam supported by two poles. Among groups who weave raffia cloth, the single heddle loom used by the Kuba is found throughout the Zaire River Basin. The orientation of the loom is unusual in that the face of the weaving leans toward and over the weaver at a 45 degree angle to the ground. The basic cloth units woven on this loom measure approximately 26 x 28", a size determined by the natural length of the raffia fibers. Noncontinuous weft fibers are laid into the alternating shed of the warps with several inches of excess nonwoven material on each side. To secure the cloth from unraveling after weaving, each unit is trimmed of excess and uneven fibers, and the edges either are hemmed or the cloth is joined to another cloth. The fabric is usually plain weave although sometimes a hand manipulated pattern of weft and plain weave combined is produced. After weaving, the cloth units are sometimes dyed and sometimes softened by repeated wetting and pounding in a mortar.

Three types of finished costume components are produced from the woven units: women's skirts, women's overskirts and men's skirts. The finished cloths are worn during ceremonial events, primarily of a funerary nature. They are wrapped around the waist, layer over layer, creating a voluminous appearance. After death, the cloths are also displayed on the body of the deceased during mourning, and buried with the body at the conclusion of the funeral ceremony.

Production of the finished fabric involves four basic techniques: embroidery, applique, patchwork and dyeing.

The embroidered cloths may be divided into three types: cut pile embroideries, uncut embroideries and cut or open work embroideries. The cut pile embroideries look like velvet or velour and have been referred to as "Kasai Velvets" or "Kuba Velours." (True velvet is a warp manipulated cut loop technique performed during weaving while the fabric is on the loom.) 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 cross over 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 embellished with a stem stitch or blanket stitch are patterned similarly to the pile cloths but by contrast are flat in 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. 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.

Like embroidered cloth, applique, cut out applique and patchwork cloths range in complexity and style. Panels created from these techniques are also individually conceptualized and then many such units are joined to make skirts and overskirts. Several women work together on the long skirts. Usually one woman is the leader. It is she who decides on the general patterns and colors to be used, and coordinates the production. When individual panels are finished, they are returned to the leader for assembly. Joined side by side the applique panels create overskirts and skirts. The women's skirts reach 25 feet in length while the men's skirts can be longer than 30 feet. It has been suggested that applique and patchwork evolved from a need to mend the skirts, and there is some evidence to support this theory, but these techniques are an integral part of Kuba textile tradition.

Other techniques of cloth production include the tie dyed cloths upon which overall patterns composed of undyed raffia set against a dyed background are created. Tie dying and the dying of cane stitched tightly to the cloth are techniques which are used. Although the literature on Kuba fabric production suggests that traditionally only natural dyes have been used, in fact both natural and synthetic dyes are used and the range of color includes orange, yellow, red, brown, black and purple. Synthetic sources for purple are commonly found in mimeograph ink, ball point pen ink and pounded carbon paper. Information about the dyes used by the Kuba is unfortunately incomplete.

Finished cloths decorated by a variety of techniques, a combination of European trade cloth, and bark cloth with raffia are all often seen on the skirts and overskirts. For example, it is not uncommon to see a tie dye panel joined to an applique panel; a cut work overskirt bordered by cut pile embroidered panels; or skirts on which trade cloth has been used as an applique element or a border panel. Skirts and overskirts are finished by hemming, binding, bordering with small embroidered panels, or by adding a fringe.

The weaving of raffia cloth is a continuing tradition among the Kuba for traditional use or for export. (The export cloth is generally of an inferior quality.) Within the kingdom, different ethnic groups produce distinctly differing cloths which vary in the number of fibers per inch, the shade of the base cloth, the embellishment and finish of the cloth, and the craftsmanship. Some cloth is fine and soft, resembling linen rather than raffia. While most fabric reflects a hand technique such as embroidery, seaming, applique and patch attachment; there are groups which prefer machine stitching. These groups who use sewing machines admire a machine stitched seam and attachment stitch. Art historians and conservators should view this variation as an important cultural decision.

In terms of age, most surviving raffia textiles from Zaire rarely exceed 100 years. Cloth which dates from the turn of the century is considered old, although there are examples in European collections which date back to the middle of the 17th century. In the humid equatorial environment of Central Africa, these organic materials suffer from exposure to the climate. The tradition of burying the skirts, overskirts and panels with the deceased also reduces the number of textiles available for preservation.

As a textile conservator, the author has worked with over 200 Kuba textiles and has encountered a range of conservation problems. Some textiles have been distorted from wear, storage or from manipulation during manufacture. Other pieces are fragmented. The majority are soiled and stained with food, blood, urine and water. Still others have been damaged by insects or rodents. The fibers are often in advanced stages of deterioration which result-from the type of dyes used, the softening of the fibers due to pounding during the manufacture, and the abraded condition of the cloth caused by wear. Some cloths have been rubbed with processed manioc flour. The reason for its presence is unclear. Perhaps it was introduced into the cloth because it was considered to be physically or visually pleasing, or perhaps it is simply that the cloth has been softened in the same mortar in which manioc flour has been processed. Another problem which confronts the conservator is the question of how to treat fabrics which have been disassembled into their component parts for display or other purposes by collectors.

Solutions to these problems and appropriate conservation techniques are not in themselves unique. The cloths can be washed, blocked, mended, patched and mounted for display by employing generally accepted textile conservation techniques. However because these textiles have been created under cultural rules which differ from our own, issues regarding care and treatment are complex. It is important that treatment decisions for ethnographic objects be informed and made in consideration of the original cultural context.

After the initial examination, if a decision is made to wash or block a cloth, the author has found that humidifying the cloth prior to any manipulation is much less stressful to the object. This is not an original idea, but it is an important one to remember when one is treating raffia textiles. One method of humidification to use before washing and blocking Kuba textiles is cool mist humidification. Victoria Blyth Hill, Paper Conservator at the LACMA Conservation Center, has used the cool mist humidifier or ultrasonic humidifier for specific conservation treatment of works of art on paper. It is this humidification system that the author has adapted. An effective chamber can be made with a variety of materials as simple as felt covered cardboard tubes laid on a clean table surface to form a rectangle. To complete the chamber simply place a piece of blotter paper inside the tubing, lay a sheet of 3 mm mylar over the rectangle leaving several inches overlap on each side, use a piece of plexiglas to fit as a lid on top of the tubular rectangle and insert tubing to direct the mist. After the textile is placed inside, the chamber's relative humidity should be allowed to reach approximately 80% over a 45 minute period. Areas of the textile which are particularly creased can then be misted locally. After humidification, the textile can be tested and then washed in an Orvus detergent and water solution. When the piece has been rinsed several times it is ready for blocking. Raffia cloth behaves much like linen during the blocking process and care must be taken to readjust the pins while the piece is drying in order to avoid stress or pulling as the fibers contract.

In the author's experience, some cloth stiffens as a result of washing and blocking, while other cloth softens from the same process. The degree of pliability may be related to the amount of soil in the fabric, or the readjusting of the fabric as it dries, or both. Possibly the dyes used in production and the processes of softening the fabric also play a role. These variables are subjects for speculation. The long term effects of washing and blocking raffia fibers are also unclear at this time. These are areas in which in depth textile conservation research is necessary.

During preparation for exhibition and storage, there is often the opportunity to patch and mend raffia textiles where insect, rodent, and wear damage have resulted in holes or tears. Most invisible mends and patches have been achieved with the use of like materials. Raffia fiber is available at craft supply stores. Raffia patching fabric can be obtained by purchasing newly woven raffia cloth, but it may be difficult to find. When raffia fiber or cloth is unavailable, cotton or linen thread that is complimentary in texture, thread count and color should be used. Because patching and applique is part of the continuing Kuba textile tradition, an attempt to mimic Kuba techniques is a procedure to be avoided. Backing a fragile raffia textile with a fabric of the same color and texture is a possible solution for stabilization.

The physical strength of Kuba textiles ranges from very weak to very strong. Display techniques then range from an approach in which a piece is simply laid in a case or on a slant board, to making a recess pressure mounting, a mounting on a fabric covered strainer or a mounting which involves the use of velcro. The author has used each of these methods successfully to suit a specific situation. The conservator's experience and the textile's condition will determine the method used. Raffia cloths are textiles and in their display they should be treated as such.

In conclusion, the conservation of raffia textiles is a subject in need of further exploration and study. All areas of textile production: preparation of the fibers, softening of the cloth, use of dyes, weaving, stitching and repairs require further research. The physical properties of raffia fibers and the changes they undergo during cloth production and later use are areas in which information is not complete. Washing, blocking, patching, mending and mounting procedures must also be studied for their long term effects. The degradation of raffia fibers, the effects of aging, exposure to light and ozone are other areas which, if considered in depth, would feed a malnourished body of information on raffia textiles. In short, this is only the beginning. Welcome to the world of Kuba textiles!

Ann E. Svenson
Assistant Textile Conservator
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Bibliography and References:

Adams, Monni. "Kuba Embroidered Cloth," African Arts, 11/78, Vol.XII, No.l, 24-39.

Mack, John. "Bakuba Embroidery Patterns: A Commentary on Their Social and Political Implications," Textiles of Africa, W.S. Maney and Son Ltd., 1980, 163-174.

Picton, John and John Mack. African Textiles. London: British Museum Publications, Ltd., 1979.

Sieber, Roy. African Textiles and Decorative Arts. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1972.

Vansina, J. The Children of Woot. Madison, 1978.

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