Medium and Process

Woman decorating raffia cloth

A woman embellishes the woven base cloth

Production of Kuba textiles is a complex and multi-dimensional process. Production of the finished fabric primarily involves the four techniques of embroidery, applique, patchwork and dyeing. The embroidered cloths can be divided into cut pile embroideries, uncut embroideries and cut open work embroideries. The cut pile embroideries resemble velvet but do not adhere to the process of weaving true velvet. Pile cloth comes from an embroidery technique that involves raffia fiber being stitched together with a needle under one warp or weft of a base cloth. It is then subsequently trimmed close to the front surface with a small knife. This results in the similarities to a velvet-like appearance. The pile fibers are secured in place between the cross over of the warp and weft of the base cloth, and there is no knot used. Only a shadow of the pattern is visible if the cloth is viewed from the back. Uncut embroideries embellished with a stem stitch or blanket stitch are patterned similarly to the pile cloths but by contrast are flat in appearance. For open work embroideries, a patte results from removing warp or weft parts 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.

The technique of applique once again begins with individual cloth to which raffia pattern elements are secured with an embroidery stitch in single or double rows around the perimeter of each. There is more of a randomness associated with this technique. 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 are decorated by a number of techniques, many of which include attaching various European trade objects to the textiles.

Man weaving raffia base on loom

Man weaving on a single-heddle loom