MATERIAL MOMENT: Bógólanfini – African Mud Cloth

In the last several months, African mud cloth has been having a MOMENT in upholstery and decor, and I’ve fully fallen in love with its rich textural and graphical nature. Mud cloth, or Bógólanfini (translates pretty literally into mud w/ cloth), originates in Western Africa, specifically the country of Mali, but I’ve also seen some imported from Burkina Faso – and has been a traditional textile of the Bamana (also known as Bambara) people for centuries.

Mud cloth of all patterns and colors in this photo from African Interiors, published by Taschen.

Mud cloth of all patterns and colors in this photo from African Interiors, published by Taschen.

HOW MUD CLOTH IS MADE:

One of the distinctive features of mud cloth is that it’s not one giant continuous piece of material; rather, it is made by hand-weaving strips of cotton (woven by Bamana men), then sewing those pieces together. Then, the cloth is dyed by hand by Bamana women (which is really awesome teamwork, btw).

First, the cloth is soaked in water infused with cengura tree leaves, which is basically a primer to help the darker colors adhere. Then the cloth is dyed with fermented mud, clay, other leaves (for the black / darker colors), and caustic soda (for the white patterns in the mud cloth). Specifically, the iron-rich mud is painted on first, and then the caustic soda bleaches the designs from the primer’s yellow tones to white. Impressively, the whole process of making an authentic mud cloth takes 2-3 weeks!

The designs are all different – they often stylized depictions of plants and animals, and are arranged to honor specific events or purposes, like a girl entering womanhood, or to camouflage hunters and signify their status.

MUD CLOTH IN INTERIOR DESIGN:

What I love about mud cloth is how versatile it is, and how much of a presence it carries in a space. It works in a variety of applications from pillows to throws to upholstery.

NOZNOZNOZ - Mud cloth best chair ever

This is one of my absolute favorite “inspiration” chairs to ever come from Google Image Search. The mud cloth on this Louis XV-style gilded chair provides such a cool juxtaposition of European 18th-century and African tribal styles.

I especially appreciate upholstery applications where mud cloth is used on the backside of chairs as well. A couple projects I’ve seen feature mud cloth on the back, but a solid black/charcoal upholstery material on the seat + front of the chair.

NOZNOZNOZ - Mud cloth chair home office

Something else I love about mud cloth upholstery is, since the patterns differ across mud cloths and even vary within a single piece, you can arrange the mud cloth sections to create a unique look based on which patterns you are most inspired by.

NOZNOZNOZ - Mud cloth in a home

This mud cloth-upholstered chair really grounds this room by providing a contrasting style.

No budget for upholstery right now? No problem. This space just coolly draped a piece of mud cloth over a vintage rattan chair, adding visual interest to this global-styles reading corner.

NOZNOZNOZ - Mud cloth draped

… or, drape it over the edge of your bed.

NOZNOZNOZ - Mud cloth on a bed

If you are looking for just a touch of mud cloth for your home, I’ve noticed a pretty steady increase of options on sites like One King’s Lane over the last few months. Also, a really rad store in San Francisco that carries lots of responsibly globally-sourced decor is St. Frank!

I’m working on a little mud cloth project for my baby bean Vivienne (crazy dog mom, yes I am), so I’ll update in a future post when it’s done!

LEATHER KNOWLEDGE: Quality + Grain Vocab

My favorite of all the San Francisco street festivals is Folsom Street Fair – coming up this Sunday – and in the spirit of its celebration of BDSM / kink / leather lifestyle, this post is dedicated to leather knowledge!

Leather is one of my favorite materials, but with the huge range in price points, many animal hide types, and nonintuitive terminology for quality levels (and frankly, the definitions online are rather confusing), it can be pretty daunting to shop for it. And if you’re thinking of making a pricy furniture purchase, it’s super important to have as much knowledge about what you’re buying as possible.

NOZNOZNOZ - Leather Knowledge - Hides in a row

Special thanks to Joel at HD Buttercup in San Francisco for letting me snap some photos of the fabulous leather hide samples they have on display!

FIRST: WHAT IS LEATHER GRAIN?

Think of a leather hide as being composed of layers – 1) the hair/fur; 2) the “skin” surface layer, which like human skin has grooves, wrinkles, maybe a couple scars from healed wounds, and a lot of character; 3) the layer underneath called the “split”, which is still leather but without the 2) layer’s “skin” texture.

The grain also refers to the surface of 2) the “skin” – each leather hide has its own unique grain pattern, kind of like human fingerprints.

FULL GRAIN LEATHER:

Full Grain is the highest-quality leather you can get. It’s basically the full hide, with the hair/fur removed. Its quality comes from 2 main reasons: because it’s both the 2) and 3) layers, and more importantly, the better, less-flawed hides are reserved for Full Grain – because the hide’s natural grain surface is preserved as much as possible, producers will select those pieces with fewer blemishes and irregularities to make into Full Grain leather.

You can see the leather layers in this photo: the upper leather sample is Full Grain, and the bottom is Top Grain – it's thinner, and missing the lower split layer.

You can see the leather layers in this photo: the upper leather sample is Full Grain, and the bottom is Top Grain – it’s thinner, and missing the lower split layer.

TOP GRAIN LEATHER:

Whereas Full Grain leather is made of layers 2) and 3), Top Grain leather is the upper 2) skin” layer, with the lower 3) “split” removed. It’s thinner without the split and also more pliable, but still 100% high quality leather. Top Grain leather is very commonly used in higher-end furniture production, because it’s still durable like Full Grain leather, but more affordable because less-perfect hides are used, so Top Grain leather is produced at a higher volume.

Since hides used for Top Grain leather have more blemishes and irregularities than Full Grain, part of the production process includes sanding the surface of those flaws away, and then stamping a faux grain back onto the leather, so that the final piece appears flawless.

THE “SPLIT”:

As you might have suspected, the lower split layer of leather is effectively suede and can be used as such. Thickness of the split depends on the hide and the production process, so it can be thin for suede clothing, or much thicker and tougher for work applications. Lesser-quality splits are also used in Bycast Leather production (see below).

MORE AFFORDABLE LEATHERS / “LEATHERS”:

If you’ve shopped for leather furniture before, you’ve definitely seen that there are sometimes VERY affordable options out there, especially compared to higher-end retailers. The nice thing about leather is you pretty much get what you pay for. Full and Top Grain leathers last longer and wear better with a lot of use. They also let your skin breathe, unlike the below leather types which will give you that sweaty “sticking to my couch” feeling. So, if you’re planning to purchase a leather couch or chair that you intend to sit in often and keep for a long time, make the investment.

But regardless of your budget or whether you just want a leather piece for its good looks, it’s important to be aware of what you’re buying when reading product descriptions.

CORRECTED GRAIN LEATHER:

Some leather hides are just so flawed or unattractive that they won’t qualify for Full or Top Grain production. What happens here is the ENTIRE SURFACE of the leather gets sanded away (just like the blemishes in Top Grain hides), and then the entire thing gets stamped with a faux-grain. Then the surface is sealed with polyurethane. You’re still getting a 100% intact leather piece, but it’s underneath the sealant and stamped grain.

BYCAST LEATHER:

Some splits are too flawed or too thin for normal use. So, producers take these splits and give them the Corrected Grain treatment: a faux-grain stamping, and a polyurethane sealant. Again, it still is leather technically (moreso a byproduct of regular leather production), but if you sit in a chair made of Corrected Grain or Bycast Leather, your skin isn’t actually in contact with leather.

BONDED LEATHER (WHICH SHOULD BE “LEATHER”):

NOZNOZNOZ - Bonded Leather Comparison

Bonded leather is the Chicken McNugget of leather (sorry McD’s fans – I love fast food, but that sh-t ain’t chicken). You know how all the unusable, inedible parts of a chicken’s body are pulverized, and then reconstituted with fillers and synthetic preservatives / pink sludge to make a food-like McNugget? That’s basically how you make bonded leather.

In making true leather furniture, patterns for the chair backs, sofa arms, etc. are cut out of a hide. After the patterns are cut out, there are a bunch of leather scraps. Bonded leather producers take leather scraps and shred them; then that substance is mixed with chemical binders and plastics to make the upholstery material. Technically, bonded leather only has to be 17% actual leather to qualify. It’s really more of a “leather product” than true leather, the way Kraft Singles now have to be classified as “cheese product” (WOW, a lot of food analogies here).

AND THERE YOU HAVE IT. Now you have all the basic quality and grain vocab to be an informed leather shopper!

Happy Folsom Week!!