African cloths have been popular in Western cultures for quite some time. Among the most well known are the Ankara fabric from Western Africa, kitenge from Eastern Africa, and African mudcloth. They are used to add an extra element of style or design and each has their own rich history and meaning from their respective cultures. The African mudcloth has a fascinating history and meanings.
Though it’s commonly referred to as “African”, the fabric hails from northern Africa, specifically the inland country of Mali in the Western Sahara region. The term “mudcloth” is loosely translated from Bambara, the language spoken in Mali. “Bògòlanfini” as it is called in Bambara, combines three root words: “bogo” meaning earth or mud, “lan” meaning ‘with’, and “fini” meaning cloth. The handmade Malian cloth dyed using fermented mud, giving it its name-sake. The tradition dates back to the 12th century.
Mudcloth was a local tradition
Traditionally made by men, they weave together thin strips of plain fabric, usually a yellowish beige natural color, into squares that were then stitched together. After the construction of the cloth, the fabric was then dyed in baths of leaves and branches. This process is used to bind the dye to the fabric.
The fabric was then laid out to dry in the sun, after which beautiful patterns would be intricately and carefully painted using a special kind of mud. The mud was collected from numerous streams and ponds and left to ferment over seasons.
As the mud dries, it changes colors, from dark brown or black to a gray color. The excess mud is washed off the fabric and the process is repeated many times. With each repetition, the affected area becomes darker. The unpainted areas were treated with a bleaching agent, turning the natural yellow color brown. After sun drying for a week, the fabric is washed off and leaves the characteristic white pattern on a dark background.
The meaning of the patterns
Similar to Ankara and kitenge fabrics, mudcloth were often manufactured to carry meaning to the wearers and onlookers. The designers used the pattern of the light shapes and figures on the dark background to convey meaning, often passed from mother to daughter. These meanings could often be quite complex, but there were some standard patterns that had accepted meanings within certain ingroups. A twirl, for instance, meant life, while a concentric circle could represent the world.
Mudcloth in modern fashion
Chris Seydou, a Malian fashion designer, is widely credited with bringing African mudcloth into the modern fashion arena. Growing up with his embroiderer mother, Seydou was frequently surrounded by the fabrics and incorporated them into his haute couture clothes, modifying the complex patterns for Western audiences.
Large amounts of mudcloth are still produced in Mali, mostly as part of the tourist trade, with men responsible for most of the production. Today, it is used in a variety of ways, from fashion to furniture and home decor. It remains a popular way to add texture and pattern to an outfit or a room.
At Mae Woven, we love having our pillows made from African mudcloth. We find fabric in many different colors from black, to rust and white or cream and even pink! We love the designs and textures that make each pillow cover unique.