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  • All You need To know about the Mali Mudcloth

    12 min read

    Mudcloth blanket draped over a modern couch with animal horns next to it

    A brief and captivating history of the ancient African Mali Mudcloth

    Did you know that the Mali Mudcloth fabric is over 1000 years old? Mudcloth (called Bògòlanfinis from Mali's Bambara language) is dyed with fermented mud. The mud is collected from riverbeds and fermented for over a year in a clay jar. The designs on the Mudcloth are used to represent social status, proverbs, or historical events. 

    A origins and history of the Mali Mudcloth

    Close up of the mali Mudcloth pattern

    The origin of mudcloth can be traced back to the 12th century where it was first created in Mali, a north African country in the Sahara Desert region. The name “Mudcloth” comes from the Mali ethnic language Bambara, and it is called “Bogolanfini”, which quite literally means earth or mud (bogo) with (lan) fini (cloth).

    In western cultures, weaving fabric has always been a task set aside for women , but the Bambara people of Mali placed so much  cultural importance on the weaving process that allowing women to create Mudcloth was considered sacrilege. However, women were tasked with the dying process, which involved using fermented mud. Each type of mud mixed with vegetation would produce different colors, and the dying process had to be repeated several times to get the right hue.

    Designs and patterns used in the Mudcloth hold deep cultural significance

    Designs were carefully thought out and held cultural significance that defined certain characteristics of the person wearing or displaying the Mudcloth

    How the Mudlcoth is traditionally made

    Men would weave cotton fabric into small blocks that were then stitched together, and the final product was then dyed in a bath of leaves and branches, which was essential in the dying process that followed. The fabric would then be sun-dried before the  pattern was painted on the material with different types of mud. As a matter of interest, the pre-bath in leaves and branches treated the fabric so the mud dyes could bind to it.

    Only the pattern was painted with mud, so those were the only areas that would be dyed a darker color than the base color of the fabric. The unpainted areas of the fabric would be carefully treated with a bleaching agent. The final step was a week of sun-drying the fabric before it was washed free of the mud dyes, and what transpired was a white pattern against a dark background.

    Patterns and rhythm as a voice behind the meaning of the Mudcloth patterns

    Some consider Africa as a continent of mysteries, and although the written word was introduced to the continent much later than other parts of the world, there was always a uniform method of communication which was in the form of art and music and art work.

    Drumbeats are synonymous with Africa, as are the patterns painted on the skin, garments, and homes. Each drum rhythm relays a different message, and  each painted pattern tells others what they need to know about the person wearing the pattern.

    Material drapes worn by a woman will reveal her marital status and standing within the community, and men display their  position in the tribe in much the same way.

    Man Playing on an African drum

    Mudcloth blankets and throws carry great meaning in Mali culture

    Mudcloth patterns carry meaning both for the wearer and for the onlookers. The same applies to Ankara and Kitenge fabrics. For example, a twirl in the pattern means life, and a full circle represents the world. Each tribe incorporated  artistic patterns into their lifestyle, which are not random bursts of creativity but rather designed to convey strong cultural messages to others.

    The Kitenge is common in most areas of sub-Saharan Africa and is predominantly worn by women either as a dress or skirt, but it is also  used to secure babies to the mother’s back or used as a colorful headdress. In Zambia, Malawi, and Namibia, the Kitenge is called a Chitenge, and the use and function remain the same. 

    In the 1960s, several African Heads of State began a fashion trend by using Kitenge material to make shirts and shoulder drapes, which led to men wearing the  patterned material. It’s important to note that although Kitenge is mainly made from cotton, there are other fabrics mixed with cotton in many Kitenge materials. Also, the density of Kitenge is much lighter with a tighter knit than  pure Mudcloth.

    The original Kitenge styled patterns come from Indonesia, where batik wax print fabrics were recognized as the jewel of pattern creation on fabric. These designs were introduced to Africa through West African soldiers who helped the colonization of Indonesia and also by the Dutch shipping merchants who transported the soldiers and traded along the coast of Africa.

     The African people  fine-tuned their wax print skills and began incorporating their designs into the Kitenge. Needless to say, a visitor can travel anywhere in east, west, central or southern Africa, and they will see just how popular the Kitenge or Chitenge still is. 

    Mudcloth usage in the home 

    Although Mudcloth was created to make prized and culturally significant garments, the material took on a life of its own and became a multi-faceted fabric that proved durable and functional not only in fashion but also as a pillow or cushion covers, interior drapes, throws, runners, wall hangings, and stylish furniture upholstery.

    Scatter cushions are one of the more popular household items made from Mudcloth, and they bring a stylish finish to an otherwise monotoned lounge setting. The meaningful messages in traditional African designs have long been modified to suit western cultures, and although Mudcloth is still made in Mali, it is mostly done as a tourist attraction.

    Black and white mali mudcloth on a modern bed

    Compared to the colors used in the first Mudcloth prints, we are fortunate to have a much  wider variety of currently available colors and designs to choose from.

    Contemporary patterns may not carry significant messages for everyone, but the Colours, texture, and designs of modern Mudcloth certainly do round off any living space in a pronounced and stylish way.

    Oddly enough, the process of weaving and dying Mudcloth has changed slightly with modern advancements but not much. It remains a “handmade” craft and is a time-consuming process that adds to the hefty price of the material.

    DIY Mudcloth - How to make your own Mali Mudcloth

    Yes, if you have the time and inclination, you can design your DIY mudcloth and dye it in the color of your choice, which will look great but sadly will not be the real deal.

    Batik motives are made using wax, but you can use glue instead of wax with your DIY project. You’ll use gel glue to paint your design on white  cotton material, and you will then dye the material. Your design covered with gel glue will not be affected by the dye, and once the dying process is complete, you’ll remove the gel glue. Be careful to use the right type of dye and gel glue; otherwise, you will sit with an absolute mess on your hands.

    With DIY Mudcloth, every completed project will be unique in its way, but if you’re not the artistic type and you want to fashion something from Mudcloth, it’s best to practice with a small sample piece or, even better,  purchase real Mudcloth with a design that suits your purpose.

    By attempting to make your Mudcloth, you will appreciate the work and hours that go into producing this trendy and durable fabric.

    Mali Mudcloth and the people behind this historic fabric

    As we have gathered from the history of Mudcloth, it may dawn on you that back in those days, fabric or material was a sought-after item and, in many cases, it depicted the wealth and status of a person.

    Today,  every household is decorated and furnished with different types of fabric. Blankets are part of every household, too, and so are traditional garments that are worn on special occasions.

    Traditional Mali Mudcloth design in Mali village

    Taguelmoust - Own work

    Bogolan cloth in the market of Endé, Mali.

    To most of us, appreciation for cultures outside of our own is a type of ad hoc interest that has no direct influence on our personal lives; so, we don’t pay much attention to the roots or traditions of other cultures.

    Mudcloth stems from a single culture nestled in the Sahara Desert of Africa, and their batik skills were primitive by today’s standards, but those people produced fine works of art that generated much pride among them.

    It served to immortalize their culture in print. Most Bantu nations of Africa have designs and motifs that carry the signature of their  cultural heritage in some artistic form or other.

    Behind every Mudcloth design lies the key to uncovering the history of what we so easily take for granted. 

    When we go out to purchase material, we feel the texture of the material and visually inspect the design to see if it resonates with the ideas floating in our heads.

    We may ask the salesperson some basic questions about the best and easiest way to clean or take care of the fabric, but how many of us ask about the origin, the history of the fabric, or the meaning of the design?

    Maybe we consider that type of information as worthless general knowledge until one day you have a guest over for dinner who comments on the design of your Mudcloth mural and tells you what it means.

    women sitting by a fire with a Mali mudcloth designed throw draped over her

    Mali Mudcloth in contemporary culture

    Mudcloth is trending because it meets the requirement of fabric strength and durability. Interior designers harp on natural earth colors and  eco-friendly products to decorate and furnish your home or office with. You guessed it, the Mudcloth meets all these stringent requirements and is  aesthetically pleasing in any living area.

    Now that you know a little more about Mudcloth, you will find that you will begin looking at fabric from a different perspective. It might inspire you to contact and chat with people in the industry who are knowledgeable not only about Mudcloth but about the  cultural significance of the different types of fabric.

    As you go about planning or refreshing your home décor, you might catch yourself being more mindful of different cultures, and hopefully, you will grow a sense of appreciation for what they are going to  deliver to the ambiance of your home.

    To get your very own Mudcloth throw crafted in South Africa see our  collection of Unique Mudcloth throws and blankets 

    Here's to your comfort

    Kobo Ke Bophelo (The blanket is life)

    All Thula Tula products are sustainably and ethically handcrafted in South Africa using the very best materials. Find your favorite Mudcloth  below.

    FAQ - The Questions You want Answered

    What is Mud cloth used for?

    Mud cloth, or "bogolanfini," is a traditional West African fabric. It has been used for centuries in West African cultures, particularly Mali.

    Mud cloth has a variety of uses, including:

    1. Clothing: Mud cloth is commonly used to make clothing, such as skirts, shirts, and dresses. The fabric is lightweight and breathable, making it ideal for warm weather.
    2. Home decor: Mud cloth is also used in home decors, such as for throw pillows, table runners, and wall hangings. The unique patterns and earthy colors of mud cloth can add a rustic and cultural touch to any room.
    3. Ceremonial purposes: In some West African cultures, mud cloth is used for ceremonial purposes, such as wrapping sacred objects or as part of traditional attire for special events.
    4. Symbolism: Mud cloth often features intricate patterns and designs with symbolic meanings. These designs may represent things like fertility, wisdom, or protection.

    Overall, mud cloth is a versatile fabric deeply rooted in West African culture and valued for its unique patterns, earthy colors, and cultural significance.

    Why is it called mud cloth?

    It is called mud cloth because it is dyed using fermented mud, which gives it a distinctive earthy color and texture.

    What is a Mudcloth made of?

    It is made from handwoven cotton fabric that is dyed using fermented mud.

    To make Mudcloth, the cotton fabric is first woven on a loom by skilled artisans. Then, the cloth is treated with a dye made from boiled leaves of the n'galama tree and left to dry in the sun.

    Next, a pattern is applied using a unique mud mixture made from fermented mud, water, and other natural ingredients like leaves or bark.

    The mud is typically applied with a special stick or brush and allowed to dry in the sun, after which the fabric is washed to remove the mud and reveal a distinctive pattern.

    The resulting cloth is typically a dark brown or black with cream or white designs and is often used in traditional African clothing, home decor, and other handicrafts.

    Mudcloth is prized for its unique texture and rich cultural heritage and has become increasingly popular worldwide in recent years.

    What does Mudcloth feel like?

    The texture of Mudcloth can vary depending on the cotton quality, the weave, and the thickness of the fabric.

    Generally, it has a slightly rough and coarse texture with a matte finish. The painted areas can feel slightly raised, giving the fabric a textured or embossed feel.

    When you touch the Mudcloth, you might feel the woven cotton's texture and the dried mud dye.

    It can be stiff, especially when new, but softens with use and washing. Overall, Mudcloth has a unique, rustic, and earthy feel, and many people appreciate its handmade quality and natural aesthetic.

    Is mud cloth waterproof?

    While the mud gives the cloth a certain degree of durability, it is not inherently waterproof.

    However, modern techniques and treatments can make mud cloth more water-resistant. For example, some mud cloth producers may use synthetic dyes instead of natural pigments, making the cloth more water-resistant.

    Additionally, certain coatings or finishescan be applied to mud cloth to make it more water-resistant.

    Whether or not mud cloth is waterproof depends on the specific cloth and any additional treatments it has undergone.

    If you're looking for a water-resistant fabric, it's best to look for options specifically designed for that purpose rather than relying on mud cloth.

    Is Mudcloth cotton?

    Mudcloth is traditionally made from cotton. However, other fibers such as silk, rayon, or hemp may be used in some cases.

    The cotton used in Mudcloth is typically handspun, handwoven, and then dyed using natural dyes made from plant materials.

    The distinctive patterns and designs on Mudcloth are created using a process of resist dyeing. Certain areas of the fabric are covered with a substance such as mud or wax to prevent dye from penetrating, resulting in a contrasting pattern.

    While Mudcloth can be made from other fibers, cotton is the most common material.

    How do you clean Mudcloth fabric?

    Mudcloth fabric is a unique and beautiful textiletraditionally made by hand using natural materials.

    While durable and long-lasting, it requires proper care to maintain its appearance and quality.

    Here are the steps to clean Mudcloth fabric:

    1. Brush off any loose dirt or debris from the surface of the Mudcloth with a soft-bristled brush.
    2. If there are any stains on the Mudcloth, gently dab them with a damp cloth or sponge to remove the excess stain. Avoid rubbing or scrubbing the fabric, as this can damage the fibers.
    3. Mix mild detergents like Woolite or Ivory with cool water in a bucket or sink.
    4. Immerse the Mudcloth in the soapy water and gently agitate it with your hands. Avoid twisting or wringing the fabric, as this can cause it to lose shape.
    5. Rinse the Mudcloth thoroughly with cool water to remove any soap residue.
    6. Gently squeeze out excess water from the Mudcloth, careful not to twist or wring it.
    7. Lay the Mudcloth flat on a clean, dry towel and roll it up to remove any remaining water.
    8. Hang the Mudcloth to air-dry in a well-ventilated area, away from direct sunlight or heat sources.
    9. Once the Mudcloth is dry, iron it on a low setting. Avoid using high heat or steam, as this can damage the fabric.

    Following these steps, you can  effectively clean and care for your Mudcloth fabric and keep it looking its best for years.

    How To Wash Mudcloth?

    Here are the steps for washing Mudcloth:

    1. Check the care label: Mudcloth is usually made of cotton, and following the instructions is essential to avoid damaging the fabric. If there is no care label, wash the fabric in cold water to be safe.
    2. Pre-treat any stains: If there are any stains on the Mudcloth, use a stain remover or a mixture of baking soda and water to spot clean before washing.
    3. Hand wash or use the gentle cycle: Mudcloth is best washed by hand or on the gentle cycle of your washing machineusing cold water. Do not use hot water or bleach, as this can cause the dye to fade.
    4. Use a mild detergent: Use a mild, gentle detergent suitable for delicate fabrics. Avoid using fabric softeners, as they can damage the fabric.
    5. Air dry: Hang the Mudcloth to air dry, as machine drying can shrink or damage the fabric. Avoid direct sunlight, as this can also cause the dye to fade.
    6. Iron if needed: If the Mudcloth is wrinkled after washing, iron it on a low heat setting.

    Following these steps, you can safely wash the Mudcloth and preserve its unique beauty.

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