Authenticity is key when choosing African textiles

Real Estate,Merlisa Lawrence Corbett

Classic and timeless, authentic African textiles can add texture and interest to any decorating style.

Melvina Mency, owner of Anitavee's Home Decor, an online store for African-inspired home accents, said it is important to invest in genuine African fabric or quality fabrications. Otherwise, you risk having a style that looks cartoonish.

"Some of the stuff they sell in stores is poorly made," Mency said. "Some of it just looks cheap or cheesy for lack of a better word."


Perhaps the most replicated of the weaves is kente. It is readily available, especially in retail fabric stores. Real kente cloth is made from a silk and cotton weave. Brilliant threads of bright orange, blue, green and gold are woven into patterns worn by royalty and for special occasions.

Mud cloth, which has its origins in Mali, is a fabric dyed with fermented mud. The mud is collected from riverbeds and stored in clay jars for months. Artisans use the mud to paint various geometric designs on the fabric.

Kuba cloth is a woven raffia cloth made by people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Traditionally, men do the initial weaving and women embellish the cloth. It reportedly takes a month for a woman to complete a small square of Kuba embroidery, using a painstaking technique that includes repeated dyeing, needlework and tufting.

"Kuba is by far my favorite," said Jim Clemmer, whose wife, Esther Armstrong, owns Sankofa African Bazaar in Baltimore. Sankofa carries authentic African textiles, including various patterns of Kuba. "I love it. It's very abstract. It's just neat stuff. It's very different," Clemmer said.

Mency understands those who love authentic African design but desire modern color schemes. She began designing prints based on traditional African design so they could be replicated in any color.

"The problem with the real African cloth is sometimes those colors don't match up with today's colors," Mency said. "You have to follow the color forecasts because people want to match their accessories."

Big-box retailers such as West Elm, Crate & Barrel and World Market carry home accessories in replicas of these cloths. West Elm's embroidered hourglass pillow cover with a raised crewelwork pattern is a good example of a mass-marketed version of an African textile that captures the texture found in originals. West Elm' Kuba cloth-like pillow cover cost $34. A real Kuba cloth pillow cost $179 at

Real Kuba cloth is simply impractical for items like blankets. "You don't want Kuba cloth against your skin," Clemmer said. "It's raffia, so it's rough-edged. It's worse than linen in terms of texture. It's like burlap."

Mency said she recommends going with a quality fabric with embroidered or raised geometric patterns for bedding and coordinating that fabric with authentic African textiles.

Shanon Munn, of Ambi Design Studio in McLean, used a Kuba cloth-like indoor-outdoor rug to anchor a master bedroom balcony in the DC Design House.

"There are no rules. It's about expressing yourself," said Mency. "Try different patterns. See how it feels to you."

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