A Brief History of African Mud Cloth Fabric

We get a lot of questions about the African textiles that are used for our goods. In Africa, the cloths and woven fabrics used for living are as traditional as basket weaving and are ingrained in African culture. We’re launching a series on each of the textiles used for Expedition Subsahara products, starting with mudcloth.

Mud cloth is a cotton fabric with an abundance of cultural significance throughout Africa. In its place of origin, Mali, West Africa, mud cloth is worn by hunters as ritual protection and as a badge of status. Immediately after childbirth, women are wrapped in the cloth, as it is believed to have the power to absorb pain and deflect anything negative or dangerous.

Mud cloth also is known as as “Bogolanfini.” In the Bambara language, Bogolanfini is made up of three words: Bogo, meaning “earth” or “mud,” lan, which means “with,” and fini, which translates to “cloth,” which is how the fabric gets its name.

Traditionally, men wove strips of fabric together to create a larger canvas and women dyed it using an intricate process. The vibrant and beautiful designs are created by painting with fermented mud or sludge. The cloth is first dyed using tea leaves and branches, then dried in the sun. Patterns, which each have cultural, historic and geographic significance, are painted onto the cloth with mud and then washed. The process is repeated to create different patterns and hues, and then a bleach mixture is used to turn any yellow areas brown. Mud cloth patterns are rich in cultural significance as well, referring to historical battles, mythological concepts or Malian proverbs. The process is passed down generationally, and oftentimes, pattern meanings are known only to small communities of people.

There’s a reason for every material we use in Expedition Subsahara. Culturally relevant textiles is just another way of using Western design to connect cultures.

African mud cloth bag