Mud cloth is a traditional woven cloth from Bamana people of Mali with rich hues ranging from rich black, brown, mustard, red or green (although other colors are sometimes found), with sections of the cloth composing of individual motifs such as fish bones, little stars or hunters.

Mudcloth in Africa dates as far back as the 12th century AD. The symbols and shape arrangement on the mudcloth reveals a variety of different secrets. A person’s social status, occupation and character can all be represented in a piece of mudcloth. Each piece of mudcloth has its own unique story to tell.

In fact, in the most recent Star Wars Film, “The Clone Wars”, Anakin was wearing a Mud cloth vest while he was dressed as a refugee traveling with Padme when they were returning to Naboo.

The Mud cloth also called Bogolafini has its centre of production in a town called San. In Bambara language, “bogo” means earth or mud “lan” means with and “fini” means cloth. In the traditional Malian culture, the rust colored mudcloth is worn by hunters, and the Fulani people. This color is preferred as it does not show dirt and also, it is supposed to represent the strong supernatural powers that protect the hunters. Mudcloth is used as a form of camouflage because it is made from the soils. Women are wrapped in mudcloth after their initiation into adulthood and immediately after birth, as the cloth is believed to have the power to absorb the dangerous forces released under such circumstances.

mud cloth

THE MAKING OF MUDCLOTH

The making of mudcloth is said to be a time-consuming process, and it normally take between four days to a week to complete depending on the weather. In making mudcloth, locally produced cotton is combed and spun into yarn by women. The yarn is woven on a double-heddle loom into a narrow strip of about 15 cm in width. In West Africa men almost exclusively use the double-heddlestrip loom. Strip weaving is the most labour-intensive weaving, per square inch of produced cloth, known to man Adler and Barnard (1992).

The strip is cut into shorter pieces, the length of the required final cloth. These strips are then joined selvedged to selvedged with a whipstitch. The cloth is washed (mainly to preshrink it) and dried in the sun. This white cloth is called finimougou and is used extensively for clothing in this undecorated state. The leaves and branches of two different trees, N’Galaman (Anogeissus leiocarpus) and N’Tjankara (Combretum glutinosum), are pounded and soaked in water for 24 hours or boiled in water for a few minutes. This forms a brownish tea, rich in tannic acid. The cloth is soaked in this solution and takes on a deep yellow colour. The yellow substance acts as a mordant. The cloth is spread out to dry in the sun. The painting is done with mud that has been collected from ponds the previous season and left to ferment.

The artist then outlines the designs with a piece of bamboo or metal tool dipped in the mud. The background surrounding the designs is also filled in with the mud. As the cloth is left to dry, the dark black turns grey. The cloth is then washed to remove excess mud. The process of soaking in the leaf tea,painting with mud, washing and drying is repeated a second and sometimes a third time. With each application the mud painted areas become darker. The yellow areas are then painted with bleach made from boiled, ground peanuts, water, caustic soda and millet bran. This turns the yellow patterns brown. The cloth is placed in the sun for a week, after which the bleach solution is washed off with water. This leaves the characteristic white patterns on the dark background. This whole process can take several weeks to complete.

The yellow, although it cannot be seen in the final product, forms a very important part of the whole process. The Iron oxide in the mud is converted to Iron and soaked in water for 24 hours or boiled in water for a few minutes. This forms a brownish tea, tannate by the tannic acid in the leaf tea. The tannic oxide forms a fast dye, which will lighten only slightly with subsequent washings.

making mud cloth(Photo credit: Krystina Nguyen)

In addition to being highly decorative, the different designs or patterns found on mud cloth have symbolic meanings. These designs are handed from mother to daughter during their apprenticeship. The designs are usually abstract or semi-abstract representations of everyday objects. These designs are used together to represent a historical event or commemorate a local hero. One of such combination of designs is called Samory Ani Tieba Benyero, and tells the story of the battle between Tieba, a 19th century king and Samory, a warrior. Another honour Koumi Diosse, a hero from Beledougou, who led a revolt against the French in 1915. Meanings attached to designs may differ depending on region or ethnic group (AfroDecor, 2002). If a cloth were made to be worn as a woman’s wrapper, the design fields would be distinctly horizontal. The cloth would have an identifiable top and bottom and be divided into five different fields. The central field would be the largest and most complex. It would be framed by narrower strips on all four sides. The left, right and bottom strips usually are of the same width and complexity, while the top strip would be much narrower, often containing a repetition of only one symbol (Arnoldi, 2000). Mud cloths made for the tourist market are often greatly simplified. They contain no clear horizontal orientation and no top and bottom.

THE DIFFERENT DESIGNS AND PATTERNS ON MUDCLOTH

Mudcloth patterns are not only decorative, but they also have symbolic meanings. These designs are handed from mother to daughter during their apprenticeship. The patterns are usually abstract or semi-abstract representations of everyday objects. These designs are used together to represent a historical event or commemorate a local hero. One such combination of designs is called Samory Ani Tieba Benyero, which tells the story of the battle between Tieba, a 19th century king and Samory, a warrior. Meanings attached to designs may differ depending on region or ethnic group (AfroDecor, 2002). Below are some of the patterns with their different meanings.

Bones of snake

This pattern is interpreted as bravery, because it refers to the bones of a snake, so it would identify a warrior killing a snake or showing bravery in some way

The calabash

This pattern represents the flower that is given off of the calabash plant native to the region, which is known as the calabash gourd.
Family and Community

This pattern reflects the love of family and community. The circle represents the house of the family and the dot in the middle is the family itself. It also represents family unity.
The Iguanas Elbow

This design represents good fortune because the iguana is famous for leading a hunter to water.
The Sickle and the Blade
This pattern tells a story about a farmer that did an exceptional job. Approximately 80% of the workforce in Africa consists of small farmers, and agriculture accounts for 40% of the region’s gross domestic product.
The Spindle

This pattern represents the spindle used in weaving cloth fabrics. It is very old and traditional and probably the most commonly used mudcloth design.
Cushions

This pattern depicts wealth and luxury. It is said to represent the cushions of wealthy women from the Mauritania area. These women don’t have to work, just put their heads on pillows.
 

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