Updated: May 10, 2020
My love for African textiles began at an early age. I learned as a child the importance of textile and fabric making. My first real lesson in African textiles came when my mother began to use bògòlanfini and Kuba textiles in her own work. This is when I learned of the long process of painting, stamping and dying of various textiles.
Many people wear African prints, believing that in some way they are representing Africa, which may be true. What many do not realize is that the kente prints and Ankara designs beloved by many in the contemporary African fashion movement are not made in Africa. Ankara is a known Dutch textile and many other kente "prints" are made in places like India. The beauty of genuine African textiles are incomparable, and require hours of painstaking and repetitious weaving, sewing, dyeing, painting and drying.
I hope that you find a new appreciation for bògòlanfini and the power that African textile has!
Origins of mud cloth
What is Bògòlanfini?
Bogolan or Bògòlanfini is a Malian handmade artisan cloth made from organic handspun and handwoven cotton that is dyed using plant matter and fermented mud. Mud cloth, as it is more commonly called, was traditionally used as a healing cloth. Because of the various plants and herbs used in the dyeing process, bogolan has been said to have homeopathic benefits. Bogolan is now used throughout the world in art, fashion, and decor.
Bògòlanfini loosely translates to “mud with cloth”
bɔgɔ means “mud” or “earth
lan means “of” or “by means of”
fini means “cloth”
Where is bogolan made? Who makes bogolan?
Bogolan originated in Mali, West Africa. Several ethnic groups are associated with the production of mud cloth. The Bambara people are most well known for their bogolan, as their version has become the most popular globally.
How mudcloth is made
What materials are used to make the cloth?
Making mud cloth is a long, meticulous, and 100% organic process. Bogolan was originally made by women, but as access to government jobs slowed down in Mali, making cloth had become dominated by men. The making of mud cloth is commonly known as a “Father to son” tradition, and currently co-ops near Bamako, Mali teach younger son boys how to make cloth. Nevertheless, women continue to spin the organic, locally-grown cotton thread needed to make the cloth. Bogolan is not available by the yard. Men then weave the white thread into 15cm wide bands. The bands are then sewn together by sewers using needle and thread. Tailors use the cloth to make hats and tunics, or simply dye the large cloths for resale to global markets.
How does the cloth get its rich color?
Bogolan is dyed yellow before being treated with other colors and fermented mud. Various resins, herbs, flowers, and plant extracts are used to create bold colors. Cloth bands are dyed and stenciled three or more times to create the rich, deep colors. The patterns on cloth are painted on using mud and dyes. Some designers use mixtures of bleach and cleaning powder to areas they want to make white.
The cultural significance of mudcloth
Women would be wrapped in bògòlanfini after being initiated into womanhood, and after childbirth, as it was believed to have spiritual and medicinal benefits.
Certain plants that are used as dye are natural remedies for certain illnesses. When the fabric is infused with this during the dyeing process it is said to give the cloth healing properties. Bogolan blankets have been used by sick to help alleviate illness.
When did bogolan become popular?
Traditionally, bògòlanfini was worn by hunters and used as camouflage. Bògòlanfini was also worn by dignitaries and people of high status in Malian culture. Kings, chiefs, and nobles wore this cloth, as a sign of status, especially since the process of creating bògòlanfini a such a long, tedious process.
What do the symbols represent?
Because the Bambara ethnic group exists in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Senegal, and cloth designs can been easily influenced by many sub-cultures. The most popularly used symbols include crocodiles, cultural artifacts, mythology, historical events, and proverbs. You will even find traces of Adinkra symbols in some textiles.
One thing that we should always be aware of is how meanings change over time. Symbology is a language that evolves and while one artist my say a zig zag represents an iguana’s elbow, another may say that is represents a river. The painters that create cloth are cultural storytellers and only they can truly explain what each symbol means.