past & present

The History of Mud Cloth

by Amy Azzarito

I don’t think that I ever really gave textiles much of a second thought until I was in graduate school at Parsons/Cooper-Hewitt. I grew up, like most of you, in a house filled with textiles; plenty of blankets for the bed, curtains on the windows, comfortable upholstered furniture and cushy rugs underneath my feet. I was so surrounded by textiles that it didn’t register that this wasn’t always the case. When in fact, for much of human history, textiles were the most precious and valuable item a person could own. (This topic was covered beautifully by a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum: Interwoven Globe. The exhibition is now over, but you can see see much of it online.) Even though today we live in a textile-filled world, the appreciation of textiles and the cultures they come from is one of my favorite things about design. Textiles express the individuality of a place in a way that is completely unique, like the wedding blankets from Morocco, kilims from Turkey, and rugs woven in the Andes of Peru. Today, we are traveling to Mali to look at mud cloth or bogolanfini, which is one of the best known African cloth traditions. Bogolanfini is a handmade Malian cotton fabric dyed using a process of fermented mud that dates back to 12th century. –Amy

(Max created mud cloth inspired downloadable frames drawn from a visit to the Adams Morgan museum in DC.)

Image above: Bogolanfini wrapper in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

How Bogolanfini is made
Traditionally, the men were responsible for weaving the narrow strips of plain fabric that were then pieced together into a larger rectangular cloth.
1. The cloth was first dyed in baths of the leaves and branches of trees (this dye acts as a mordant).
2. The now-yellow cloth is sun-dried and patterns were painstakingly painted with a special mud, which had been collected from ponds during the previous seasons and left to ferment.
2. As the cloth dries, the dark black mud turns gray and the cloth is washed to remove excess mud. This process is repeated numerous times and with each application, the mud-painted area of the cloth becomes darker. The yellow areas are painted with a bleach, which turns the yellow patterns brown. The cloth is left to dry in the sun for a week. When the bleach solution is washed off with water, what remains is the characteristic white pattern on a dark background. (If you want to get a sense of the mud cloth making process, check out this amazing site from the Smithsonian where you can virtually design your own mud cloth.)

Image above: bogolanfini from the collection of the British Museum

Read more about the history of mud cloth and see modern examples after the jump!

Why is it also called Mud Cloth?
In the Bambara language, spoken in Mali, the word bògòlanfini is a composition of three words. Bogo, meaning “earth” or “mud,” lan, meaning “with” and fini, meaning “cloth.” The word is translated as “mud cloth.”
The Meaning of the Patterns
Just one of the many things that makes traditional mud cloth so special is that each piece has a story to tell. Even the arrangement of the symbols on the cloth reveals something secret about the intended meaning, and this language of the cloth was passed down from mother to daughter. This site has a great key to understanding the stories in mud cloth but one of things that is so extraordinary about mud cloth is the complexity found in its simplicity. There are some basic symbols that everyone agrees on – a twirl for life and a concentric circle to represent the world, for example. But these motifs were traditionally codes for a small group of people. They just weren’t meant to be understood by the uninitiated. It is the language of a community so there will always be just a little bit of mystery for the outsider.

Image above: A bench upholstered in African mud cloth from One Kings Lane

Modern Bogolanfini
Most historians credit fashion designer Chris Seydou (1949-1994) for bringing bogolanfini onto the international stage. Chris’ mother was an embroiderer so from an early age, he was surrounded by textiles, the clothing trade and fashion magazines. He got his start in fashion by apprenticing in tailor shops of Mali when he was sixteen years old, and by the time he was twenty-six, he was already designing his first collection using bogolanfini fabrics. He simplified the older patterns (feeling that the traditional patterns were too complex for Western clothes) and used the cloth on his haute couture mini skirts, motorcycle jackets and bell bottom pants. It was a huge hit on the runway.

Today, bogolanfini is a matter of national pride in Mali. Large quantities of the cloth are made purely for the tourist market, and today much of the cloth is made by men, rather than women. In the 1990s, bogolanfini production was seen as an entrepreneurial opportunity and perhaps it was easier for young men, who were less restricted by home and family responsibilities, to obtain capital to purchase materials.

Image above: The work of Chris Seydou (from left: Discovering Mud cloth: An African Voices Exhibit, Brown University and Journal-Ethnologie

Image above: A vintage chair upholstered in mud cloth from the Brooklyn studio of woodworker Ariele Alasko.

Image above: Designer Megan Garrett brought the mud cloth that she’s using as a rug in her living room back from a trip to Senegal.

Fair Trade Places to Buy Mud Cloth

The African Fabric Shop
Ananse Village

(You can find additional retailers certified by the Fair Trade Federation here)

For Additional Reading
Elsje S Toerien’s Mud Cloth from Mali: Its Making and Use. Tydskrif vir Gesinsekologie en Verbruikerswetenskappe, Vol 31, 2003.

African Mud Cloth: The Bogolanfini Art Tradition of Gneli Traore of Mali by Pascal James Imperato.

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  • The mud cloth making process is fascinating! What an interesting post. I love learning the history, process, and meaning of textiles and this post gave me a quick little lesson, thanks.
    Love that mud cloth upholstered chair! Brilliant!

  • I’ve been thinking how textiles are sooo much a part of our lives yet so unacknowledged… so much talk about tech and social media, yet what would our lives be like without textiles? Very uncomfortable. Mud cloth style is so timelessly strong and simple. Great post.

  • This is a wonderful post (well, they all are wonderful) but this one was interactive, too! I clicked the link to the Smithsonian and am now printing out my own design for Mali bologanfini cloth from the site.
    What an inspiring introduction to this beautiful and intricate method of textile design from the people of Mali.

  • I really enjoyed reading this post, I was just wondering do you trade featured blog posts. Thanks for sharing your Blog with others. You really share valuable information.

    • i cant figure out of how the mud cloth tradition is passed down

      i cant figure out what i need to

  • How do I set the dye to keep it from rubbing off on my hands or other fabric? I want to make a pillow from my beautiful piece, but get indigo hands from just handling the cotton. Can I cold water wash? Do I need to get it dry cleaned? Do I dry it in the sun? Help!