Mudcloth, or bogolan, refers to a type of rough-woven cotton fabric that has been died using a mixture of mud, tree-bark, and other natural ingredients. The rich earth-coloured cloth is then made into blankets, or items of clothing. Mopti and Segou are centres of bogolan production, but it seems somehow appropriate that some excellent quality mudcloth should be produced in a city built of mud. Now you see mudcloth items for sale in markets all over Mali but it is worth going to visit a good workshop because if the process has been explained to you, and you’re thinking of buying some, then you’ll recognise good quality when you see it.
Before being dyed, the cloth is woven into long strips about 30cm wide. There are only about five dyes used to colour the fabric; black, white, and various shades of brown, depending on the mix of ingredients. The process is a bit like batik in that wax is used to provide areas of resistance to the dye, and occasionally block printing techniques are used for repeat patterns. The skill in producing good-quality mudcloth is being able to produce sharply defined edges to the colours on what is a particularly absorbent fabric. Poor-quality, mass-produced mudcloth looks as if the design has been painted on blotting paper. Traditionally, stiff fibred brushes were used to dye areas of block colour and sharpen the edges. Today the craftsmen use toothbrushes.
After each colour has been applied to the fabric, the wax is peeled away and it is then soaked in a natural dye fixative. The strips of cloth are then sewn together to make the finished item. Items of clothing, such as trousers and over-shirts, are simple in shape and use the width of the woven cloth sewn together as the guide for sizing an outfit. The designs vary from bold repetitive patterns, such as cowrie shells, or more delicate representations of stars and animals. Each of the designs and symbols used on the mudcloth has a meaning and, in common with some Bedouin cloth, often tell a story.
Stars are an important symbol, as they show how much the nomadic tribes people rely on them for navigation. Cowrie shells, as a long-gone form of currency, are often used on marriage blankets to symbolise a wealthy union. There are also symbols for the points of the compass as well as ritual animistic designs. The more contemporary designs showing village scenes tend to be of the type mass-produced for the tourist market, and are often made into bags and wall hangings. "Workshop" is probably a bit of a misnomer, as all aspects of the production of mudcloth in Djenné is done in the family home. The bark and mud mixture is prepared in the kitchen and left in pots in the rear courtyard, the colouring and sewing is done wherever there’s space, and the fabric is dried on the roof.
The house is also the shop and display area, which is usually upstairs away from the family living area. There is no pressure to buy, and the craftsmen seem to be quite happy even after they’ve shown you their whole stock and you say you need to think about it. Neither is there much in the way of advertising either. There are a number of good mudcloth workshops in Djenné, and they are signposted... but very badly. Once you get into the rabbit warren of back streets, the signs become a bit sparse. Even if there were signposts the workshops themselves do not have signs, so it’s probably best to ask. The workshop of Pama Sinintao produces excellent mudcloth, and it can be found close to a couple of competitors just before the bridge on the road out of town.