Kuba Shoowa Cloth
Country: Democratic Republic of Congo
Material: Raffia Palm
Size: 24" (61 cm) x 18.5" (58.5 cm)
Provenance: Ex. James E. Adkins Collection - Florida, USA.
The Shoowa seldom sew their velvet pieces together to form clothes. Instead, they are regarded as objects of value in themselves and carefully stored away. They serve as a means of payment, as gifts, in settlement of tax liabilities and as dowries. And when their owners die, they are buried with them, together with other objects.
The basic material used in weaving panels of Kuba fabric is the fibre of the raffia palm (raphia vinifera), which grows throughout the region. The outer layer of the young, plumelike leaves is split (frayed) and the fibres drawn. They may need to be twisted together and beaten to provide the threads used in the textiles. Weaving is the exclusive preserve of men, who work sitting at sloping looms. The finer the fibre, the stronger and tighter the woven fabric will be.
The size of the woven panels is determined by the natural length of the raffia fibre; the individual fibres are not artificially lengthened. Hence, panels usually measure between about 50 x 60 cm and a maximum of 100 x 100 cm.
The cloths are soaked, kneaded and beaten to make them soft and supple. The basic reddish tone of the velvet is obtained by dyeing the untreated fabric using a powder made from red wood. Yellow ochre background colours are more common, however.
The cloths are embroidered by women. The technique of cut-pile embroidery consists of passing threads between the warp and weft threads with a needle, without any visible stitches or knots. The threads are then cut to leave a pile of about 2mm on either side, with the velvet fibres are secured in the middle only by the tightness of the underlying weave. The Shoowa are real masters of this technique, which demands a great deal of skill.
An enormous amount of work is involved in making a raffia cut-pile panel. It is a process that can take between several months and more than a year, so it is not surprising that cut-pile "velvet" cloths are treasured as objects of value.
For embroidery incorporating more than one colour (a technique found almost exclusively among the Shoowa), the raffia fibres are coloured with plant dyes before embroidering. The roots of trees are used for red, brown and yellow hues and, it is reported, typewriter ribbons, for violet. Black dye is made from soot and tar.
Ajour embroidery is a type of drawn-thread embroidery in which fine openings and fine ribs are produced by pulling the embroidery thread tight.