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The Kuba people of Zaire, formerly the Belgian Congo, hand-cut and weave strips of the raffia palm to create the beautiful and diverse pieces of kuba cloth that can be displayed as art, worn as ceremonial dress, or displayed as art in the home. The process of creating kuba cloth is time consuming and can take a single artisan several days to weave a 12" square.
The process begins for creating raffia cloth begins with men gathering the leaves of the raffia tree and dying it using natural plant dyes or mud. The fibers are rolled and softened by hand, then weaved the cloth into what resembles a thick cotton canvas. The weaving takes place on inclined, single-heddle looms. The coarse raffia fabric is pounded with a mortar to soften and flatten it.
Next, women embroider strips of dyed raffia cloth onto a base swath of fabric. The embroidery is done by hand and involves simple top-stitching. The women artisans will often perform thousands of stitches per day in this art form that has been handed down for centuries. Common designs include right angled shapes, circles, and straight lines.
Ceremonial kuba cloth is also made from the raffia palm and involves a different method of production. Women artisan use a cut-pile embroidery technique using short raffia strands that are inserted, one at a time by hand, with a single needle. Hundreds of hand-stitches are required to create a single, small area of kuba cloth.
After the needlework, the raffia fibers are cut at a uniform level, which gives the kuba cloth its plush appearance. A variety of shapes and designs are used, often with each design having a ceremonial meaning. To the Western eye, the kuba cloth is richly textured and varied. The finished product is often used in dress for ceremonies in the DOC.