Culture Corner: The Story Of African Mud Cloth

Mud cloth, also known as bògòlanfini, is a textile that originates in Mali and is made from hand-woven cotton dyed in multiple processes with leaves, branches, and river mud. In Mali, large quantities of the cloth are made specifically for tourists who travel there to purchase it. But it has also made its way into international fashion and luxury living, appearing on runways, popping up in home décor on sites such as Etsy and eBay, and finding its way into imported fabric stores. Here is more about this vibrant and colorful textile.


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The materials

In spite of its thick, rough texture, traditional mud cloth is made with 100% cotton. The cloth is usually a cream color before it’s dyed. It’s what’s done to that cotton that achieves the end result.

How it’s made

Narrow strips of hand-woven cotton are dyed in a bath full of tree branches and leaves. The branches and leaves dye the cloth a yellowish hue. Next the cloth is dried in the sun, where it is decorated with dark mud. Once the mud has turned gray, the excess is scraped off. This process of applying and removing mud is repeated several times until the muddy areas become permanently dark. The mud itself is mixed with a water or tea substance, and set aside for a year before it is put to use on cloth. The process for making mud cloth dates back to the 12th century.

How it’s made: part II

The yellow areas are bleached, and the cloth is left in the sun again so the bleach can take. When the excess bleach is removed the desired pattern shows up as white on a dark background.

More on the initial dyeing

When the cloth is first dyed, the leaves and branches vary depending on the desired colors. Mud cloth art is very specific. Artists must learn about how different natural materials react with each other, and how they react with cotton.

The bògòlanfini name

In the Malian language of Bambara, the local name for mud cloth is bògòlanfini. “Bogo” means “Earth,” “lan” means “with” and “fini” means cloth. So the name translates to “earth with cloth.”

Some popular symbols

Some of the more popular symbols you’ll find on mud cloth are twirls, which represents life, and concentric circles, which represent the world.

The symbols were originally secret

The symbols on mud cloth were originally meant to be understood only within small communities of people. Even though some symbols such as twirls and circles, have been decoded, certain arrangements of symbols and certain individual symbols are still a mystery.

Mud cloth was originally made by women

Traditionally only women made mud cloth and understood the symbols. They would pass on the skills and secrets behind the symbols to their daughters. By the 1990s the cloth had become an opportunity for entrepreneurs, and men took to the trade.

The father of modern Bogolanfini

Chris Seydou, a Malian designer, is credited with bringing mud cloth into the international fashion spotlight. Seydou grew up in Mali and began working on clothes at age 16. His career boomed in the ’70s, and he is known for making miniskirts, bell-bottom pants and motorcycle jackets from mud cloth, on which you can see updated versions of traditional patterns. He has been featured in Fashion Week.

Mud cloth has been featured in museums

Brown University featured an exhibit, “Discovering Mud cloth: An African Voices Exhibit.” The British Museum also has a collection of the mud cloth.

A wife’s symbol

The symbols on mud cloth can tell you a lot about the wearer. Some symbols denote occupation, status and wealth. If you see what appears to be greater-than and less-than symbols with a plus sign in between (>+<), this design is known as Beds of Bamboo and Millet. Traditionally a woman in a multiple-wife relationship wears this design to show she is superior to the other wives.

A farmer’s symbol

Another popular symbol looks like several arrows pointing in the same direction, stacked one after the other. Legend has it that a farmer designed this after his favorite sickle. Several patterns are meant to be good luck for farmers or hunters.

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