By Lisa Shepard Stewart
If you've ever experienced the unmatched look and feel of a piece of bogolanfini cloth (also called bogolan or mudcloth) up close, you're sure to understand its worldwide appeal. Made by the Bamana women of Mali in West Africa, using a technique traditionally passed on from mother to daughter, bogolan was primarily worn to mark important stages in the lives of women. Wrapped garments made from bogolan were worn in the rite of passage from young girl to young woman, prior to the consummation of marriage, and after childbirth. The cloth was equally important to hunters and considered a protection from malevolent forces. Like other authentic African textiles, bogolan’s bold designs are inspired by everyday objects as well as proverbs and historical events.
The name bogolan derives from bogolanfini, a Bamana word combining bogo, which means earth (mud) and fini, which means cloth. It’s also possible that the term mudcloth arose from a misunderstanding of the labor-intensive process that creates the fabric. Some believe that when traders from other regions saw the cloth being made, they mistook the iron-rich clay used in the process for mud. But whatever its name origin, bogolan is a beautiful textile with many modern uses.
Bogolan artist Kletigui Dembele is a member of Groupe Bogolan Kasobane, a collective of six Malian artists who have worked together since 1978, employing traditional techniques. Photo courtesy of www.Cultured Expressions.com.
Bogolan begins as a pile of narrow, handwoven strips of locally grown cotton, each about 4 to 6 inches wide, that are sewn together to form an entire cloth. Weights of the finished cloths can differ according to the thickness of the cotton yarns and how tightly they're spun—some of my favorite pieces are those with slight variations in the thicknesses of the yarns throughout the piece. The stitched-together cloth is soaked in water infused with the leaves of the cengura tree, a brew that turns the cloth yellow and allows it to fully absorb the dyes that will be applied later. Iron-rich clay that’s left to ferment for months is used for dyeing, sometimes with the addition of crushed leaves for intensified color.
Before it’s dyed, the individual cloth strips are joined with a simple zigzag stitch. Photo by James Godish.
When soaking is complete the cloth is removed from the bath and left to air dry. The first coat of the design is applied once the cloth is completely dry. The artist sections off the cloth and then outlines designs in mud, using a spatula or bamboo sticks and painting in the negative spaces. As the clay dries, the cloth absorbs its color. When it’s completely dry, any excess clay is washed off and a second (and sometimes even a third) coat is applied in the same manner. The artist gives the cloth a final soak in a solution of boiling leaves, further enhancing and setting the color. The recipe of leaves and other ingredients varies from artist to artist.
The next step involves the application of sodani (caustic soda) to the yellow areas where mud was not applied. This restores the original color of the cloth and provides greater contrast against the dark mud-dyed background. A final washing and drying complete the process. At last, the bogolanfini is ready for its traditional use as a wrap-style garment.
The addition of natural colorants during the dyeing process provide the classic range of earthtones, including tobacco brown, khaki, rust, and mustard. These traditional colors remain the most popular for bogolan, but fashion colors like teal, orange, and purple have also become readily available through the use of commercial dyes.
Interestingly, for all of its artistic value and graphic appeal, mudcloth's global exposure is relatively recent. Bamana artist Nakunte Diarra has been making bogolanfini since the 1950s, employing techniques that she learned from her grandmother. Today she is widely recognized as Mali’s greatest living bogolan artist, with works gracing the collections of museums and individuals worldwide. But until the 1970s, the cloth had only limited local appeal, confined mostly to Mali's rural population. Mudcloth was long despised by the region's more educated urban-dwellers, who considered it anything but fashionable. The cloth's peasant-class stigma began to dissolve with the work of young Malian fashion designer named Seydou Nourou Doumbia, also known as Chris Seydou, who was designing in Paris in the late 1970s. His unabashed use of bogolan for clothing and accessories is credited with elevating the cloth to the forefront of style for apparel and home decor alike.
A variety of bogolon fabrics. Photo by James Godish.
Bogolan has evolved into a contemporary cloth that speaks to various types of wealth: knowledge of culture and the environment, self-sufficiency through sales of the cloth, and the wealth of human connections as the cloth and its significance continue to traverse international markets. Exact interpretations of the design motifs can be difficult, in that each artist infuses a design with her or his own meanings, conveying messages that are not necessarily created for widespread communication.
Traditional mudcloth artists can spend about two weeks on a cloth. The mud used in the technique ferments in a clay pot for several months, sometimes even up to a year. As such, the continued demand for mudcloth has resulted in simplified local techniques, mass-produced versions, and "mudcloth-inspired" looks around the world. In recent years young Malian men have joined women in the production of mudcloth, and experimentation has led to the development of less time- and labor-intensive ways of creating it. These commercial versions of bogolan allow for colorfast washability, continuous yardage, and consistent fabric repeats, but for many these innovations hold only a fraction of the beauty found in “the real thing.”
Bogolon lends itself to any number of projects, including this artful needle case. Kits for creating your own
bogolon needle case are available through www.Cultured Expressions.com. The kit includes bogolan fabric, colorful African-print lining fabric (linings will vary), ribbon tie, and instructions. Photos by James Godish.
Mudcloth has many uses beyond traditional wrapped garments. I've personally come to love the look and feel of bogolan for quilts and pillows, bags, covered journals, and more. It has a warm earthiness that stimulates all of the senses. And since each strip is woven separately, each has its own selvedge, so the strips can be separated for use in smaller projects, or accents such as a border on a crocheted piece or a graphic insert within a knitted garment.
Lisa Shepard Stewart has been obsessed with African textiles since a trip to Senegal in 1986. Join her in celebrating the first-ever African Fabric Month this September at www.Cultured Expressions.com.