Patterning and Barkcloth

Geometric patterns found on textiles can be found in many different aspects of society and have a certain meaning and importance to the Kuba people.  When textiles are embroidered, the status of the wearer is that of royalty because of the extra effort that is put into the product (Meurant, 115).  The levels of detail and the pattern determine the status of the person within society.  Fabric is created from the inner bark of local trees that is beaten after being removed (Cole , 387).  Barkcloth is made by sewing small pieces together and only the more prestigious people wear clothes made of this fabric type.  The skirt seen here is made of barkcloth and has a border of raffia textile and some pieces of fabric imported from Europe.  Even though this design looks very simple from far away, one notices the amount of effort put into the design of this cloth that is actually made of small triangles sewed together to form diamonds, both natural and dark colors are used (Cole , 388). 

Textiles and Ranking in Society

The patterns not only represent economic and social status but ethnic unity and religion as well (Cole, 388).  The Kuba continue to produce all of the different patterns even though these no longer represent the power of the people.  The aesthetic does however, show a person’s ranking within the society (Washburn , 20). 

Raffia Cloth

The weaving of Raffia cloth originated in the Kingdom of the Kongo, near the entrance of the mouth of Zaire into the Atlantic Ocean.  The Kuba began to use this style in the 17th and 18th centuries (Washburn , 21).  Raffia cloth is common because the Kuba men cultivate palm trees and then prepare the fronds, which are the outer layers of leaves (Cole , 388).  Men then weave the white fibers on a diagonal loom to create two foot by two foot rectangular squares; when the raffia dries, it becomes light tan in color (Washburn , 23).  When the textiles are completed, both men and women add decoration before wearing their skirts; these skirts, which are worn wrapped many times around the torso, can reach a length of nine feet or even reach to twenty feet (Cole, 388).  The men provide a more natural effect to textiles while the women create the rectilinear and geometric expressions that define the cloth (Meurant , 115).  Women add the geometric designs by either embroidery or plush motifs; plush motifs are decorations separated or outlined by parallel lines (Washburn , 23).  Sudden changes in pattern are common to break up the surface; these could occur in line thicknesses or the elements represented.  Raffia cloth has always been an important item in the Kuba society, it was used as currency and in legal settlements and marriage contracts (Cole , 389).  When these squares were used as currency, people referred to them as mbal or bambala which translates as people of the cloth (Washburn , 20).  Ceremonies such as court and funeral always used raffia cloth; this cloth is still remembered for its importance throughout history (Cole , 389).

Pattern Naming

The Kuba people have over two hundred named patterns and it is very difficult to study all of the origins of the patterns and production techniques.  Each pattern is given a name; however, some patterns have different names depending on the tribe spoken to and the popularity of the design.  There are also different names when other mediums are used (Washburn , 24).  When a pattern is common among a majority of the tribes, the same name is usually given by every tribe.  The Bushong patterns are different from the other Kuba designs because regular patterns are used.  This regularity gives more royal power and it shows individual characteristics that help to differentiate the Bushong from other tribes (Washburn , 25).  The following list is composed of pattern names and visual examples of these types.

Sample Patterns

Twisted Patterns






Nynga-smoke                                                                                          Washburn, Dorothy.  58

Emphasis on Color

Mamanye-emphasized bent lines

Mikobi Ngoma-twisted bordering lines

Mabintshi Buina-bent lines facing each other

There are three different categories to place these textiles.  The first category is named when the pattern names honor the founders or creators of the patter (Washburn , 59).  An example of a common name is Woto, this was the name given to all of the children of the water, five variations of this name were found by Washburn (Washburn , 61).  The second occurs when the pattern name tells of the significant part of objects.  Some words that are commonly used are vine and king’s palace.  Thirdly is when the pattern name describes the activity of the object.  In this category, people focus more on the actions than the whole picture which tends to give more life to the idea behind the pattern (Washburn , 65).


Woto Bukala-“just Woto”



Woto Nene-“great Woto”



Woto BuemBuem-“standing on one leg”