After the cotton or wool has been carded, spun, and woven, it is time to begin the preliminary steps of dying the fabric. Modernization and globalization have widened the scope of cotton production, particularly in southern Mali. In the cooler north, sheep’s wool is more commonly used. Long woven strips of cloth called finimugu are sewn together to create larger swathes of cloth. A soak in an infusion of leaves from the n’tjankara and n’gallama trees, and a day of drying in the sun turns the cloth a deep saffron. In addition to preparing the cloth for mud dying, this yellow base makes the mud dye a richer brown. Dying a full shirt or wraparound skirt uses about two liters of this solution. Traditionally women tell stories while combing, carding, spinning, dying, embroidering, and tailoring the fabric, while the men take care of the sheep shearing and weaving.
Members of Moussa Fofana’s mud cloth workshop in Sévaré, Mali, make the preliminary dye bath from leaves. Photo courtesy of Sara Rosen Berthé
Now comes the stuff that this craft was named for: mud. Rather than sketching out any of the designs first, the artist visualizes the desired pattern and uses their hand to measure out how and where the patterns will play out on the cloth before outlining and then filling in each motif. The artist moves from the outside of the cloth in, filling in the surrounding areas once each pattern has been drawn out, and rinsing off the mud once it has dried sufficiently. Although several variations of mud application have arisen (spatula, stencil, and table), the method of pressing the mud into the cloth against a hard surface allows the mud to fully penetrate the fibers of the fabric. Traditional bogolan masters stretch the fabric over a calabash gourd and paint with sticks. To achieve the prized dark color, the painter must apply two coats of mud and soak it once again in the boiled leaf concoction to ensure that the color has fully penetrated the fabric and deepened to the richest tone possible. The black mud used at this stage has been harvested in April and fermented for a year in an earthen pot, transforming from gray to the gray-black color used for bogolan. It is applied with a brush, stick, or the increasingly popular stencil- and paintbrush-dabbing method and is most intense when the tannin-rich pods of the baraguwa plant have fallen and rotted in the still pond or lake bed where it has been collected. The technique of painting the negative space first originated in Beledougou; less skilled artisans in other towns often simply paint the pattern onto the yellow background. To decorate a two-by-two square meter of cloth takes roughly forty-eight hours which are usually spread out over two weeks. Typically only custom-made cloths warrant the attention of a second or third coat of mud to make them more resistant to fading.
Member of Moussa Fofana’s workshop washes the cloth in the preliminary dye bath. Photo courtesy of Sara Rosen Berthé