Weaving Zulu Ilala Palm Baskets in South Africa

Each Zulu basket is lovingly handcrafted in the northeast coastal and inland areas 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 living in traditional Kraals, areas bordered by acacia sticks that encircle traditional family dwellings.

The age-old tradition of basket weaving is usually passed down from grandmother to granddaughter. This helps to preserve Zulu culture as the grandmothers have the opportunity to recite oral history and stories to the younger generations as they all weave together.

Weaving Process

Zulu women prepare the materials for weaving these baskets by collecting Ilala palm fronds, pulling them into strips, then use natural materials such as mud, flowers, charcoal, bark, roots and other found materials to dye them before hanging them to dry. The palm fronds have a natural waxy coating which makes them ideal for weaving watertight baskets.

The larger baskets are traditionally woven by a bride-to-be or given to a new couple as wedding gifts. During the wedding the baskets will be used to hold ceremonial beer. Prior to its first use, minute openings in the basket are sealed from the inside with a paste of coarsely ground corn. More elaborate designed and intricately patterned baskets denote the relative wealth and power of the family. A mid-sized basket may take a month to weave, but a huge masterpiece basket can often take over a year to weave.

Large, watertight baskets with lids that fit snugly inside the opening at the top are called Ukhambas. Isichumo baskets have  a lid that fits over and around the opening. Smaller Iquthu lidded baskets, or “herb baskets”, often have a looser weave, and are traditionally used to store medicinal remedies.

Pattern Meanings

  • Checkerboards, Whirls or Circles – good news, new baby, good rains
  • Triangle – symbolizes masculinity
  • Diamond – symbolizes femininity
  • Zig-zag – represents the spear of Shaka
  • String of diamonds – the shields of Shaka
  • Diamond patterns with triangle points around the outside – wedding basket 

About South Africa

The Republic of South Africa is the southernmost country in Africa. With over 59 million people, it is the most populous country located entirely south of the equator.

South Africa is a multiethnic society encompassing a wide variety of cultures, languages, and religions. About 80% of South Africans are of Black African ancestry, divided among a variety of ethnic groups speaking different languages. The remaining population consists of Africa’s largest communities of European, Asian, and multiracial ancestry.

At the time of European contact in the 15th century, the dominant ethnic group were Bantu-speaking peoples who had migrated from other parts of Africa about one thousand years before. The two major historic groups were the Xhosa and Zulu peoples. Colonization by the Dutch and later the British ended in the early 20th century, when a government controlled by the white minority (20% of the population) took power, eventually constructing an institutionalized system of strict racial segregation known as apartheid.

After a long and sometimes violent struggle by the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-apartheid activists both inside and outside the country, a negotiated settlement in 1994 transformed the country into a liberal democracy where all ethnic and linguistic groups have held political representation. South Africa is often referred to as the “rainbow nation” to describe the country’s multicultural diversity.

South Africa is a developing country and ranks 113th on the Human Development Index, the seventh-highest in Africa. It has been classified by the World Bank as a newly industrialized country, with the second-largest economy in Africa, and the 33rd-largest in the world.

However, crime, poverty and inequality remain widespread, with about a quarter of the population unemployed and living on less than US$1.25 a day. Moreover, climate change is an important issue for South Africa: it is a major contributor to climate change as the 14th largest emitter of greenhouse gases as of 2018 (in large part due to its coal industry), and is vulnerable to many of its impacts, because of its water-insecure environment and vulnerable communities.

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All of our African baskets are verified Fair Trade, because we believe that indigenous people around the world should be compensated fairly for their amazing work.

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Zulu Ilala Palm baskets

SKU: 101511

Ukhamba Canister

Approximately 5.5 Inches Wide x 7.5 Inches Tall $40.00

SKU: 102558


Approximately 11.5 Inches Wide x 3.75 Inches Tall $40.00

SKU: 106132

Herb Basket

Approximately 3.5 Inches Wide x 6 Inches Tall $19.00