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The Ironies of Zebra Print

Proof of the timeless appeal of zebra print comes strolling down catwalks and popping up between catalog pages every year. From haute couture gowns to bedding to handbags to shoes, zebra print seems to be the go-to pattern to up the ante for dramatic effect.

At Swahili, we’re never quite content to just see a beautiful object as a beautiful object, perhaps because so many traditional objects in Africa have an underlying meaning. We can’t seem to help but ponder on ironies and implications once the contemporary objects that we dream up with our artisans become realities. At the top of mind today are our new Mudcloth Zebra Print textiles from Mali.

zebras in the veld

In nature, zebra stripes serve as a camouflage mechanism, preventing colorblind predators from differentiating the animal in the tall savanna grass. Zebras are very social animals, and no two zebras have the same stripe pattern (even though I must admit, they all look pretty similar to me, a non-zebra).

Now for the ironies. When adapted to the home or wardrobe, zebra print can hardly be considered camouflage. Instantly a focal point, zebra print pops among other colors and patterns, perhaps because the more plentiful photoreceptors in our eyes, called rods, cannot differentiate between colors, but easily discern black and white in both dim and bright lighting. In the savanna, you wear a zebra coat to hide and survive. In the human world, if you want something to stand up and be noticed, you give it a zebra coat.

Mudcloth Zebra Print Table Runner

Zebras may be social creatures, but the strength-in-numbers mentality does not translate when piecing together a room or wardrobe with zebra print. We’ve all seen the mesmerizing results of a head-to-toe zebra print outfit, or imagined the mental taxation of resting in a bedding ensemble completely patterned with stripes. To get the most appealing impact from zebra print without visually assaulting oncoming traffic, less is always more. A pair of zebra print shoes can set off a solid colored suit, but no shoes on Earth could pare down the damage done by a zebra print suit. With this in mind, we kept the number of, size of and distance between stripes on our new textile line in check, opting for an abstract representation rather than striving to squeeze as many stripes into the field as possible.

Mudcloth Zebra Print CoastersOur zebra print textiles have been well received so far, but we have been challenged by a few buyers to ensure that every piece look exactly as pictured on the website. Thankfully we can refer back to nature, reminding those fastidious souls that no zebra’s coat is the same as another’s…nor shall any of our Malian table runners be exactly the same as the one on the site. It’s Mother Nature’s rule, not ours.


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