The African Mud Cloth Story


The African mudcloth, also called bogolanfini (pronounced “Bo-ho-lahn-FEE-nee”), is a handmade cotton fabric that has been dyed with fermented mud. It originates inside the nation of Mali from the Bambara (also called “Bamana” or “Banmana”) people, one of the largest groups of Mandé peoples in West Africa. The mud cloth has come to hold an important place in Malian culture, often being worn by men and women alike, and it has grown to the point of being a prominent symbol of Malian communal identity. Nowadays, the cloth is exported worldwide as one of the best-known African cloth traditions.

Name and Origins

The word bogolanfini itself comes from two words: ‘bogolan’ meaning ‘mud’, and ‘fini’ meaning cloth, thus highlighting the two primary materials used in production of the mud cloth.

The precise timing of the origin of the African mud cloth is hard to pin down, given the perishable nature of the fabric and the humid climate of sub-Saharan Africa, but it is generally accepted that the Bambara people began making the traditional mud cloth centuries ago in the Beledougou area of central Mali. Researchers have found evidence there that the dyes and fabric used to make mud cloths date back to the 12th century, and so it is generally assumed the traditions began at least at that time.

During the colonial period, African mud cloths and other tradiational clothing declined in interest in favor of the cheaper, machine-produced fabrics worn by European rulers. The colonizers encouraged European clothing in the land, rather than the traditional garb the native peoples were accustomed to.

In time, however, as African nations began to declare their independence and assert their own sovereignty, traditional African clothing rose again to prominence, being a distinctive display of national pride. And in recent years, people with African ancestry worldwide have become more interested in their own family history and cultural identity, and thus becoming more interested in the traditional clothing of their ancestors. These factors contributed to the resurgence of the mud cloth.

The Making

A mudcloth artist works in a specialized area of expertise. Each point of the process is taught and learned over a long period of time, with a great deal of experimentation using different mud dyes. A person who wants to work in the art of making mud cloths has to be carefully taught how to make each of the different dyes out of organic materials, as well as exactly in what manner each of the substances will react with the cloth.

The first material used in the time-consuming process of making a mud cloth is the cotton. First, cotton is grown locally and harvested, and then hand-spun into yarn to prepare it for weaving. Then a man will take the cotton and, using a loom, will weave it into long strips called finimugu, which can be sold at the market. These long strips are then sown together by a skilled family member or local tailor to make a full cloth.

At this point, the woman will wash the cloth to pre-shrink it, making it suitable for clothing. Then she will soak the cloth in water infused with cengura tree leaves, turning the cloth slightly yellow. This soaking will help the cloth absorb the mud dye which will later be applied. The cloth is then set out to dry in the sun.

At this point, the designs for the mud cloth are decided on. Perhaps there is a particular pattern that a client wants, or perhaps the mud cloth is just for family use. Regardless, the artisan prepares fermented mud for the job. This mud has been collected from local ponds from the previous year and allowed to ferment in covered containers for up to a year.

The artisan outlines the design with a piece of bamboo or metal dipped in the mud, and then fills the background of the design with the mud. As the cloth is left to dry, the mud within the cloth turns from black to grey, the cloth is then washed to remove the excess mud. Another round of soaking in tree leaves and drying the cloth follows, then another application of mud. Each time, the mud-painted areas become darker.

Once the designated areas have become sufficiently dark, the yellowish areas are then painted with bleach. This bleach is called sodani, made from boiled peanuts, water, caustic soda and millet bran. This application turns the yellow areas into brown.

The cloth is then placed in the sun for a week to bake. After this, the bleach solution is washed off with water, leaving the mud cloth with it’s characteristic white patterns on dark background.

The whole process can take several weeks to complete.

In recent years, stencils have been made from cardboard or plastic to help the artist paint the mudcloth faster. These stencilled cloths are generally for tourist market purposes, as they represent less originality and variety than cloths made without stencil. Using these techniques, however, an artist can produce six to seven times the number of cloths than he previously could, creating an entrepreneurial opportunities for mud cloth artists.

Meaning of Designs

In traditional Malian culture, mud cloth is worn both by men and women. It is worn by hunters to provide camouflage (as most cloths are made from earth elements) as well as to signify ritual protection and perhaps a badge of status as well.

Women are often wrapped in mud cloths after their rite of passage into adulthood as well as immediately after childbirth, and prior to a wedding. In these contexts, the cloth is believed to have the power to mollify dangerous forces that are present during such events.

The precise mud cloth patterns are rich in cultural significance and can refer to historical events (such as a battle between the Malinese and the French colonizers), animals or other objects, mythological concepts, or proverbs. The crocodile, for example, features prominently in Bambar mythology and is thus sometimes depicted.

In addition to the patterns, each color scheme in a mudcloth carries meaning. The most traditional coloring of the mud cloth is black background with a white design, as this is typically used for story telling or the portrayal of a proverb. Another color popular among hunters is rust, which is similar to a burnt red. The rust color is appreciated not only because doesn’t show dirt, but also represents strong supernatural powers that protect the hunter, (mentioned above). It can also signify blood from the hunt or from warfare.

White is a color normally worn by women or girls at ceremonial events, as it remains perhaps the most difficult-to-use material, and it’s easy to stain during the process.

Recently, as mud cloths have resurged in popularity, many colors have been added to the traditional colors. Bright reds, purples, yellows, and oranges are constantly being developed by new artists, although some people don’t prefer these as they are not strictly traditional.

Example Meanings

Farmers Sicklemudcloth1

Once upon a time, a farmer had a sickle that worked really well. He liked his sickle so much he thought that it deserved its own pattern.

Brave and Fearlessmudcloth2

Once upon a time there were brave and fearless warriors among us. They wore belts when they went into battle that looked like this.

Iguana’s Elbowmudcloth3

The iguana (very common in many parts of Africa) represents good fortune and Africa’s struggle against foreign powers, and can lead a hunter to water. Thus his elbow is depicted here.


Seamstress at work is a very old and traditional conception in Africa. This represents a spindle.

Calabash Flowersmudcloth5

Calabash flowers represent prosperity, and are incorporated into a design here.


In Mali, the African mud cloth is worn by people of a diverse background of ethnicities, including prominently in Malian motion pictures and entertainment, and is adorned often by Malian musicians. These fashion choices are often used to display national or ethnic identity to connect them to their viewers. Also, the mudcloths are nowadays made into a wide range of clothes popular among young people, including miniskirts, jackets, and flowing robs called boubous.

The mud cloth is also used in art. Many native Malian artists paint scenes on mud cloths, ranging from simple abstract patterns to scenes of African landscapes. Also, the traditional mud cloth patterns designs have also been incorporated into a wide range of commercial products, such as coffee mugs, towels, book covers and wrapping paper.

Even without the meanings of the designs being well known, mudcloth has become very popular lately in the western world, and rightly so. It is an extraordinarily beautiful fabric, and the unique and exotic colors and designs combine with a hand-spun, hand-woven fabric produce a rich and elegant textile. Anytime you see a mud cloth being worn, you know you are seeing a statement of African culture!

Public Displays

The Smithsonian National Museum of History has put up a display as part of their ‘African Voices’ exibit, highlighting various aspects of African mud cloth production and art. It features one artist, one designer, and one painter in their various positions of work, and allows the visitor to see for himself the process of making a mudcloth. Areas covered include are the contemporary developments in using bogolanfini to create Western types of clothing, including jackets, as well as the incorporation of acrylics into the painting process, and the passing on of knowledge of mudcloth making from mother to daughter and from generation to generation. Visitors can see all these developments in a Macromedia flash presentation.

Care And Washing

Whenever you buy a mud cloth, you need to keep in mind that it is fundamentally made of cotton, which is a perishable fabric. It is not the kind of thing that will last forever or wishstand harsh washes, and thus it requires care over the years that you intend to enjoy it.

First of all, the mudcloth needs to be prewashed if you are going to use it in sewing or other various crafts so that you remove any residual excess dirt and/or dye. With this washing, the cloth will be come softer and smoother to the touch.

Before doing any kind of washing, though, it is generally best practice to test a small piece of any part of the fabric to make sure the cleaning method and/or detergent is compatible with it. Most detergents will work well, but it is best to take the extra precaution. The precise cleaning method can be dry cleaning, machine washing, or hand washing, but be aware that some dry cleaning services will not clean hand-made fabrics like a mudcloth.

If you choose to clean the mud cloth by a washing machine, what you want to do is place the fabric in a lingerie bag and wash it in cold water, using a gentle cycle, and only a mild laundry detergent or mild soap. Avoid warm water washes and extra-powerful detergents with extra chemicals. The water itself will turn a dark color (at least initially), and you may have to rinse the washing machine an extra time before laundering other clothing.

There may be some fading to your mudcloth after its initial cleaning. To dry, hang it up in the sun, or lay it out flat to dry. The mudcloth can be ironed with a steam-iron if you so desire, although keep in mind that too much steam will wear out the fabric in the long-term. Use the “cotton” setting on the iron or a cooler setting.

How To Buy

Our mud cloths come straight from Mali. We work with local artisans and can assure you that our mud cloths are individually hand-painted. We offer free shipping to the continental US, and a wide selection that you can choose from. Shop now by searching the African mud cloth category.

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