Zulu Ilala Palm African Baskets woven in South Africa

May 23, 2009 at 13:19 1 comment

We just added two more beautiful baskets to our online store.

large palm basket

They are Zulu Ilala Palm African Baskets, handcrafted in the northeastern coastal area of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. All-natural fibers, materials and dyes are used to construct these unique treasures. Most of the people in this region are subsistence farmers and live in their traditional Kraals, an area fenced in by piles of sticks that contain their traditional huts.

Ilala palm fronds are collected, pulled into strips, naturally dyed and then hung to dry as the traditional Zulu women prepare their materials for basket-weaving. The palm fronds have a waxy coating which makes them ideal for the weaving of watertight baskets.

The age-old tradition of basket weaving is usually passed down from grandmother to granddaughter. Some young girls begin learning the art of weaving as young as age 9. Many are able to put themselves all the way through school, supported solely on the proceeds of their basket sales.

Different patterns on the African baskets also carry different meanings (see list below). The larger baskets are traditionally woven by the bride-to-be or given to the new couple as wedding gifts. During the Zulu wedding the baskets will be used to hold ceremonial beer and they are sometimes called ‘beer baskets’ for that reason. Prior to its first use, the basket’s pores are closed from the inside with a paste of coarsely-ground corn. The more elaborate designs and intricately- patterned baskets denote the relative wealth and power of the family. An elaborate, medium-sized basket may take 30 days to weave.

These two baskets are referred to as Ukhambas (lid fits inside the top, cork-like) and they are actually watertight. The alternative type is known as Isichumo (lid fits over the top, jar-like). Smaller baskets with lids or Iquthu often have a looser weave and are traditionally used to store medicinal herbs. Open bowls or Isiquabetho and Iqoma are used to store nuts, grains, fruits or vegetables while flatter baskets or Mbenges are used as tops to clay jars or open top African baskets.

Here’s what the patterns mean:

Triangle — A masculine symbol

Diamond — A feminine symbol

Double Triangle — Marriage, man

Double Diamond — Marriage, woman

Zig-Zag — Masculine, represents the spear of Shaka, the leader of the Zulu people

Series of Diamonds — Feminine, represents the shields of Shaka

Checkerboards, Whirls or Circles — Good news, new baby, good rains, plentiful harvest

Points Around the Outside — Shows the number of cattle paid as bridewealth (Lobola)

And here’s how the different colors are achieved:

Cream — This is the natural color of the dried ilala palm fronds.

Pink/Lilac — Comes from boiling the palm fibers for a day with the leaves of a certain shrub.

Brown/Black — These most popular colors are attained using the roots of trees from river banks.

Golden Brown — Comes from four hours of boiling with the root of a special shrub-like plant.

Coral — Mixing aloe roots with the same roots that produce the pink colors makes up this color.

Purple/Blue — Boiling for four hours with the skins from a particular ripe berry produces this color.

Grey — The palm fronds are soaked in a black sludge of mud with a high iron content for one week.

Orange — The roots of a small hairy-leafed plant is boiled with the palm fibers for several hours.

Yellow/Mustard — Palm fronds are soaked in a wood ash paste then boiled for seven hours.

Green — Soaking in fresh cow dung overnight then boiling for several hours tints the palm fronds green.

Light Red — Bark and leaves are crushed together and the ilala fibers are boiled in the mixture for two days.

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