All You need To know about the Mali Mudcloth

7 min read

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

A brief history of the African Mali Mudcloth

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 alw ays been a woman’s work, 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 were carefully thought out and held cultural significance that defined certain characteristics of the person wearing or displaying the Mudcloth

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.

Close up of the mali Mudcloth pattern

Patterns as a voice Meaning behind 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. 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.

Mudcloth blankets and throws carry great meaning 

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

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.

Mudcloth people

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.

Taguelmoust - Own work Bogolan cloth in the market of Endé, Mali.

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.

Mudcloth blanket in front of fire

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.

Steve Watts
Steve Watts

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