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What is Mud Cloth?

Mud cloth is the translation of the Malian term Bògòlanfini, or bogolan, which is a typically handmade African cotton fabric.  The development of this African fabric originated in Mali, a landlocked West African country known primarily for its gold production.

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Mud cloth is unique, and named, because it is dyed with a type of mud that has been stored and fermented for many months to years.  The traditional process of producing mud cloth is fairly intensive. The process begins by involves pre-soaking the fabric in boiled leaves of the Anogeissus leiocarpa (n'gallama) tree, which turns the cloth yellow after drying.  After drying, designs are stenciled into the cloth with wood pieces and the stenciled cloth is dyed with the fermented mud.  Once the mud touches the cloth, a chemical reaction takes place which permanently dyes the cloth and allows the color to stay even after washing the cloth of mud and dirt.  Lastly, the yellow leaf dye is bleached off, creating a strong contrasting between the remaining white sections of the cloth and the mud-dyed sections.  Over time, the mud dyed sections continue to age, creating an evolving and complex set of brown tones and a truly unique piece of African fabric.

A cheaper and controversial variation of mud cloth has emerged in the last couple of decades using much more simplified techniques and removing the key ingredients altogether (i.e. the fermented mud and the boiled tree leaves).  This version of mud cloth primarily mimics the pattern design, but requires significantly less skill and results in less of the unique aging effects and traditional elements of the original manufacturing method.

Mud cloth is usually patterned with historical references, mythology (the crocodile is a common theme), or traditional cultural proverbs.  This African fabric is believed by the Malian people to absorb evil spirits and bad forces, and is used accordingly in various ceremonies and rituals, including for hunting and childbirth.  As with many African fabrics though, mud cloth is emerging as a popular integration into high fashion as well.

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