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The Importance of Authentic Mud Cloth

African mud cloth, known in Mali as mud cloth, is a popular local product. It’s made of cotton fabric that is then dyed with fermented mud, lending the rugs a range of earthy tones. It has been used in Malian culture for centuries and is popularly associated with the country, with the cloth being typically touted as one of the nation’s iconic symbols of fashion and art.

As mud cloth fabric has grown in recognition and popularity, its production has increased. However, in many cases, there are cheap knock offs that fail to capture the care and attention required to produce these fabrics. A genuine mud cloth fabric product is traditionally made in the town of San, which is widely known for its productions. The process of creating these fabrics is time intensive and requires incredible attention to detail.

Making Mud Cloth

Making Mud Cloth
Making Mud Cloth

The process begins with men, who are traditionally the weavers of the cloth. The men of San typically use looms to weave together strips of cotton that are about six inches wide. These strips are then gathered up and stitched together, forming cloth that is usually about three feet wide and almost five feet long. This forms the first stage of the fabric’s production. However, until this point, the fabric remains uncolored.

Once the fabric has been fully stitched together, the dyeing process begins. The villagers bring together leaves from a local tree known as a n’gallama tree. These leaves are mashed together and boiled, forming a unique substance. Afterward, the cloth itself is soaked inside this mixture, leaving the cloth a yellow color. This dyed yellow fabric is then allowed to dry naturally, sitting out in the sun and baking throughout the day. During this time, as it is drying, it is painted with designs using pieces of either metal or wood.

The paint itself is created using a separate process. This process requires the villagers to collect mud from local riverbeds. It is then fermented for anywhere as long as a year in clay jars kept within the villages. Once a cloth needs to be painted, the villagers use the mod to create intricate designs and motifs, creating interesting an elaborate pattern on the rug’s surface. The mud itself reacts with the yellow dyed fabric during this time, bonding it with the rug. When the villagers attempt to wash off the cloth, the brown color remains on the fabric, leaving an elaborately colored and designed piece of cloth.

Afterward, one final step takes place. The n’gallama dye has to be removed, which is done by using either soap or bleach. As the yellow dye is removed during this time, the underlying design is stained white. Interestingly, long use of one of these cloth fabrics will turn various the darkest brown parts of the cloth different colors over time. This creates a wide range of brown shades that make the mud cloth fabric that much more visually impressive.

Authentic Vs. Knock-Off

As can be seen by the level of care that goes into the production of this fabric, a true African mud cloth is neither a quick nor easy process. A true, genuine mud cloth fabric product requires months to a year to produce, if only because the mud involved has to be allowed to ferment for so long. However, the final product is a piece of amazing quality that changes slightly with time, taking on a unique color and appearance.

Simpler, faster techniques might imitate the style of a mud cloth, but they will be unable to replicate the slow process that occurs in mud cloth fabric over time. Quickly produced cloth won’t change with the years, taking on new hues and colors. It will also lack the genuine cultural authenticity that a traditional mud cloth fabric involves. Many of these more quickly created fabrics will have sharply contrasting colors, typically black paints against white, that lack the slow transition of brown shades that true mud cloth fabrics possess.

Mass produced fabrics are also much more simply designed than traditional fabrics. True mud cloth fabric involves an incredible amount of attention to detail. The villagers who paint these fabrics invest significant time and care into creating the fabric’s ornate designs, and a visual inspection of the fabric will show a genuine mud cloth fabric to be far more elaborate and visually pleasing.

Unfortunately, many people who do not understand the difference in mud cloth fabric productions will often fall prey to individuals hoping to sell cheap knock off products. However, when a mass-produced mud cloth fabric is set next to a hand created one, the differences are immediately obvious. A genuine product is far more colorful and elaborately designed, making it a far more visually impressive production. Still, some of the benefits of buying genuine mud cloth fabric won’t be apparent until some time has passed. The many shades of brown the fabric takes on after years, for instance, is one way a genuine production stands apart. Mass produced knock offs lack the ability to change with the years.

Purple Mud Cloth
Purple Mud Cloth

The cultural significant of mud cloth fabric also can’t be overlooked. This fabric was used by hunters as camouflage and by women during adulthood rituals. The patterns on genuine mud cloth fabric are also culturally significant, and can refer to local myths, animals, and historic events. Mass produced varieties lack the connection to history and legend that a true production captures.

To truly capture a part of the African experience, only genuine mud cloth fabric will do. If you’re in market for one of these amazing productions, take a look at some being sold online and see for yourself the wide range in quality.  Start by checking our selection of quality pieces.  You’ll quickly notice that some mud cloth fabric is relatively simplistic and lacking in color. These are signs that the product is a knock off. True mud cloth fabric will be visually amazing and carry on it symbols that evoke the rich heritage of the Malian people.