I had been wanting to try my hand at DIY mud cloth–you know, the black and white patterned fabric that has been the design darling of the tribal/Boho/a-black-and-white-pallete-is-all-the-rage movement? Then I did some research about how the real (authentic, and notably expensive) stuff is made and suddenly its steep price seemed justified and it felt almost sacrilegious to even attempt to knock-off what is a very involved textile art form.
Mud cloth has even been popping up on Pinterest in the form of stockings (second from left and far right)!
Yet I did it anyway. With a clear conscience, I can’t really call this a DIY mud cloth tutorial, except in the title, or how else would you have landed here? Rather, what I’ll provide is a tutorial for a technique that, depending on the pattern you follow (confession: I made mine up), can result in a fabric that looks quite similar to the real thing. And if not exactly the same, still cool in its own right.
A wing chair, partially upholstered in mud cloth, by woodworker Ariele Alasko, got the ol’ wheels turning.
I’d argue this technique (inspired by this post) is better than some of the other incarnations of DIY mud cloth on the internet that suggest using a white marker on black cloth (although this one that shows how to make dinner napkins using that method does get a gold star).
I saw this on Instagram and was sorry October had already passed. If you want to get a head start on faux pumpkins for Halloween in a mud cloth motif, click here.
But before we begin, I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least a CliffsNotes version of the history of mud cloth. After all, education fosters appreciation. The next time you pick up a pillow with mud cloth fabric on the face (it is so valuable, it tends to be reserved for one side only) the price might not be such a shock; any irregularities will make more sense (it’s handmade); and it would be nice to think you just helped support a laborer who is likely working more, but eating less than you. To ensure the mud cloth is from a legit source, you can always buy it fair trade.
Another shot from that clever Ariele Alasko. Note how she used the base of an antique sewing machine (that she found on the sidewalk–way better than a penny or quarter, eh?) to prop up her desk.
What exactly is mud cloth?
Mud cloth is handmade in Western Africa, specifically Mali, in a process dating back to the 12th century. Traditionally men wove the cotton into narrow strips which they then sewed into a larger piece and the women did the dyeing. Today men tend to be responsible for the entire production of this ever-popular product.
The pieced together fabric is dyed in baths of leaves from the n’gallama tree which turn it yellow. The fabric is dried then painted in intricate patterns using mud that has been fermented for over a year in clay pots. The residual acid of the leaf-solution causes the fabric to have a chemical reaction with the iron oxide in the mud, turning the mud-painted portions a dark grey. The fabric is left to dry in the sun, then washed to remove excess mud. This is done repeatedly until the areas painted with mud turn almost black. On the final rinse, the fabric is washed with a soap containing potash, shea butter, and peanuts to bleach the yellow areas back to their original ivory color.
The symbolic patterns are individual to each tribe and were used to tell stories passed down from mother to daughter. Some are widely understood (concentric circles represent the Earth), but many remain unbroken codes.
In the 1980s, fashion designer Chris Seydou (1949-1994) brought mud cloth to the runways where it had its fleeting fashion moment only to fade into textile obscurity until…now. Note to self: never throw anything out unless it threatens to attract mice or mold. What’s out will once again be in.
There. Done. See, now you are at least ten times smarter.
So how do you make mud cloth, minus the mud? Here’s how.
Elmer’s Washable, No Run School Glue Gel. (Found here.)
Dylon Velvet Black Permanent Dye. (Found here.)
I used 100% linen fabric, but 100% cotton should work just as well.
Mud cloth covering an ottoman: such a good idea!
Google “mud cloth patterns” and you’ll find plenty to choose from. I read that squeezing the glue bottle can cause a lot of hand cramping (true) so I made up a simple pattern I could apply easily and freehand. If you’re nervous about drawing freehand, you can always use carbon paper to trace a design printed from the internet onto your fabric–or, at the very least, use a pencil and ruler. I’m not so patient so I went rogue and dove in.
The exasperating beading effect of Elmer’s gel glue. Sadly, swear words and threats to throw the bottle across the room do nothing to ameliorate the situation, but reapplication (once, sometimes twice) will do the trick.
Squeeze the glue on the portions of your pattern that you want to remain the natural color of your fabric as the rest will be dyed black. And then the most annoying thing will happen! Just when you think you are almost done, you’ll look back and about half the area you covered will have disappeared. This is because this glue that is so magical in the way it performs like a wax resist without all the mess of hot wax, also does a bit of a disappearing act as it tends to bead up just when you thought you were finished. Go over the missing areas and make sure to watch the glue as it dries so you can redo any spots before all of the glue dries fully. Allow the glue to dry for 12 hours or overnight.
The results of my DIY mud cloth. Totally black (not grey or purple, phew!).
Follow the instructions for dyeing the fabric–sort of. I say this because the package tells you how much water to add to the dye (4 cups) but then instructs you to “fill a bowl/sink with enough warm water for the fabric to move freely”. This was all too vague for me, especially since I had read many disappointing reviews for the dye (which is often used to revitalize faded black denim and was frequently purported to turn it grey, at best, or worse: purple), so I did not add any more water beyond the 4 cups used for the dye bath itself. I had very low expectations so I increased my dyeing time a half hour beyond the recommended time.
My DIY mud cloth used as a table runner.
Rinse your dyed fabric in cold water until the water runs clear, then use warmer water to remove the glue. Full disclosure: my fingernails removed more glue than the warm water did. I let the fabric dry in the sun, then ironed it on a medium setting to further set the color. Not sure if this step was really necessary, but it did make the wrinkled fabric smooth so it seemed logical.
My DIY mud cloth draped on a chair that normally resides in Kai’s nursery.
And there you have it. Your very own inexpensive, fun and easy to make DIY mud cloth!
Happy decorating! 🙂