Among African fabrics, the mud cloth of Mali in West Africa is as well-known as the Kente cloth of Ghana. Mud cloth is made of cotton strips woven by men and stitched together to form a larger cloth. Women then decorate the cloth with mud from the seasonal rivers in Mali. Mud cloth patterns are rich with meaning for the Bamana people of Mali; they symbolize the use of the cloth or convey messages to the wearer.
Applying patterns to mud cloth is labor intensive and time consuming. First women soak the rough cotton cloth in leaves that have a natural softening agent called tannin. When they apply clay in bands, diamonds, and other geometric shapes, the clay reacts with the tannin and a dark brown design is left on the fabric. The background of the fabric is then bleached white or cream to improve the contrast of the design.
Mud cloth is worn for ceremonial purposes in Mali. The cloth serves as a celebratory outfit during young girls' initiation rituals and as a shroud during funerals. Although mainly worn by women, mud cloth is also worn proudly by hunters to signal their status in their social group. The beauty of the fabric has prompted the creation of variations on the basic design. A lighter weight version of the cloth is used for tablecloths and sheets. Men make stenciled cloth for tourists and some mud cloth is commercially made for export.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kennett, Frances, and Caroline MacDonald-Haig. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File, 1994.