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A Primer on African Textiles



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Ever see gorgeous African textiles in design magazines and wonder where they came from? Textile design is a true art form across the continent of Africa, and many designs are specific, not just to a region, but to a particular tribe, like a coat of arms. Here we’ve put together a little primer on a few of the designs that have made it into North American interiors. Because while we are thrilled to share these gorgeous designs with a wider audience, we want to do so in a way that honors their history and culture. These are NOT just trends.

Mud Cloth from Mali

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Mud cloth (bogolanfini, or bogolan)  is a culturally important tradition in Mali dating back to the 12th century. Cotton fabrics are created on special looms and  are dyed using fermented clays and muds, that give the cloth the rich dark colours and patterns. Historically, the cotton fabrics are woven by men, while the intricate patterning created in the dyeing process is done by women.

Mud cloth is made by bathing the cotton in a yellow solution made from mashed and boiled leaves of the n’gallama tree. Left in the sun to dry,  clay and mud is then applied as a painted layer to create the beautiful motifs. There are many artisans who continue to create these textiles using time-honoured techniques, but some modern makers have come up with new processes that speed up their creation.  As I leaf through designer magazines and surf online, I’m seeing Mud Cloth everywhere these days.

Kuba Textiles

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Kuba cloths are generally rectangular or square pieces of woven raffia that are embellished with embroidered geometric patterns from the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Once the raffia fabric is woven, typically by men, women hand embroider the geometric patterns by sewing in the desired pattern with raffia thread, stitch by stitch, clipping or cutting each thread. This makes the embroidery process painstakingly long, but the final product are pieces that resemble velvet in texture.

The pattern and repetition you see in Kuba cloth tell complex stories that are a source of great interest to modern mathematicians who are excited by the geometric language these textiles speak. The geometric patterning in Kuba cloth represent the traditional music and song of the Kuba people, which you see in off-beat phrasing that seems to interrupt an expected pattern. Just think, that’s not simply art on your wall, or headboard at your bed, but hidden within that pattern is a myth, a song, a story.

Kente Cloth

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Kente cloth is made by by the Asanti people of Ghana and the Cote d’Ivoire.  Kente cloth gets its name from kenten, for basket, because its woven look is similar to the basket weaving. The fabric itself is woven using specialized looms and this particular textile is known for its brightly coloured and intricate patterns. Every colour used in Kente cloth carries meaning, so that each finished piece of textile tells its own story.  For instance:

  • White: denotes purity, peace, innocence and spirituality
  • Yellow: represents gold and signifies royalty, wealth and fertility
  • Black: is the symbol for bereavement and darkness, but also for secrecy and mystery
  • Blue: represents wisdom, humility, harmony and love. It’s the symbol for big spaces like the sun and ocean.
  • Green: denotes life, growth, and youth
  • Brown: is the colour of mother earth, and represents healing
  • Pink: is associated with femininity, tenderness, calmness and the essence of life.

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Add to this that various color combinations also carry special meanings and you’ve got a hisotrically and narrative rich textile. I love the richness of stories and cultures each piece holds. They really are one of kind for this reason.

 

 These textiles should never be treated just as home trends, but understood in their context of history, geography and culture. I love to listen to the faraway voices that echo through my home with each of these treasures on display.

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