The beauty and simplicity of these tri-colour cloths strike an evocative cord with the viewer. They stir something primordial, perhaps our earliest memories of living closely with nature.
Today, in modern times the Dida people themselves preserve a love and regard for their indigenous fabric, describing the raffia cloth as “wealth” or treasure. Besides the obvious, the fabulous design and colour, this phrase may be coined because of their appreciation for the fiendishly complex method of construction:
It is not woven on a fixed loom like the Shoowa cloth of the Congo, but according to textile expert John Gillow, is made by an ingenious hand method of plaiting and interlacing together several bunches of raffia fibres that when pulled in particular directions, act as the warp and weft threads, thereby generating a tube-like fabric.
Skirts, loincloths and cloaks are all created from the filaments of raffia vinafera and this fabric is unique to the Dida, because of the combination of: gauze like texture, small organic patterns, peculiarity of the design and the beautiful rich warm colour, obtained from technical knowledge of the effects of vegetable dyes.
The striking designs comprise of an accumulation of squares, ovals and rectangles in a pattern tending to be interrupted at intervals. The design is visually enhanced by the varying scale and proportion of the motifs, the irregularity of the actual shapes and their sometimes odd change of direction. This lends a wonderful sense of improvisation to each fabric, and pieces are therefore exceptional or invented according to the whims of both chance and the maker.
The pattern is constructed by using a resist technique. This is made when the cloth is stitched and tied into configurations using raffia thread pulled tight. The stitching acts as a resist when the textile is immersed into dye. Stitches are removed in stages, leaving specific coloured areas on the cloth. The muted, rather mellow shades of sand yellow, red and black originate from a three step dyeing process, also giving a relaxed blur to the edges of the shapes. The discrepancies in the depths of the dye lend small points of visual contrast. The last dye bath creates a dark background to the image visually unifying the piece.
John Gillow.2003. African textiles Colour and Creativity across a Continent. Thames and Hudson