Mud Cloth Culture in Mali

January 31, 2012
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It’s no secret that one of the most rewarding aspects of travel is delving into the local culture. This is especially true in Mali and other parts of West Africa, which has kingdoms and civilizations dating back centuries.

The Bamana people of Mali are known for their bogolanfini, or mud cloth, a textile whose design is made through a method of painting with mud. The fabric, which is used to make men's sleeveless shirts and wrap skirts for women, commonly features natural motifs like animals and plants that have been turned into geometric patterns. For instance, the zigzag pattern is known as the legs of a cricket.

The symbols, arrangements, colors and shapes of the mud cloth carry secrets and codes about a person's social status, character or occupation, which is why bogolanfini has long been considered an expression of Malian national identity and a cultural symbol.

The process of making this cloth begins with the cotton, which is locally grown, harvested and hand spun before being prepared for the looming process. Men weave the cotton into long strips on the looms. The strips are then sewn together to create a larger panel. Women are traditionally responsible for the artistry that goes into painting the cloth.

The textile is resist dyed in a manner unique to this specific culture. The common method of resist dying in Africa involves tying, starching or stitching parts of the material so that it repels dye, creating sharp, contrasting patterns. The method of the Bamana people is different. They first dye the cloth yellow, then paint mud from nearby rivers onto the cloth to create the darker patterns. They they use a caustic solution to get rid of the dye from the lighter areas.

Even the dyes themselves have a rich back story. In one legend, an unsuccessful hunter went out hunting in a brand new, white outfit that his wife had made for him, promising not to get it dirty. After falling asleep on the job, he rolled into a river where the mud dyed his clothes black. His efforts to remove the stains were futile and his wife was furious, but she soon realized that it was a blessing more than a curse — he had discovered a new type of dye.

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