April 27, 2013 Who doesn’t remember making mud pies as a child? I have fond memories of watching in wonder as ordinary mud piled into a pie pan would liquefy and flatten out into a near perfect imitation of a pumpkin pie when I patted its surface. I’m sure your mom wasn’t happy, may have reminded you that you were not a pig and then grumbled about trying to get the stains out of your clothes.
In January, we resolved to plan some messy fun once the weather got warm. After looking forward to the outdoor workshop for months, the fiber guild participants arrived at Marlene’s Lawrence County Ohio farm to learn from fiber artist and mud cloth expert Judy Dominec from the Cincinnati area. At her suggestion, we brought along some of our own dirt, collected in Gallia County and several southern states.
Judy talked about the origin of the mud dyeing process and of her trip to Mali to learn the craft from traditional craftsmen from the African nation of Mali. She also brought samples of Mali articles and her own mud cloth items. Mud dyeing, or bogolanfini has been produced for hundreds of years, and traditionally has been the cooperative work of men and women. The completed mud cloth is sewn into loose shirts, robes and caftans.
Woven cotton cloth in narrow widths is produced by the men of the tribe. Women outline and then paint in mud that stains the cloth. Either the craftsperson or the person who will wear the garment chooses the desired patterns that represent features of their landscape, everyday life, and folk heroes. Different designs are traditional for men, women, children, marriages, and other events.
In Mali, the finished cloth takes months of aging to get a depth of color and sharpness of design unequaled elsewhere. Check out this Smithsonian site to learn more about the people and the process of making bogolanfini, and use the interactive site to choose patterns and apply them (electronically) to produce your own mud cloth garment in minutes.
The traditional fabric shows sharp white on black geometric patterns, while more modern works include browns, golds, greens and reds, with the white background often predominating. Men are now involved in dyeing the fabric, and they may make stylized figures in addition to the traditional geometric patterns. Patterns and colors often are chosen to please tourists who will not pay the price for the more complex and costly fabric in the traditional designs. Contemporary bogalanfini brings much needed income to families in this west African nation.
Check out this link to Dupsies as an example of African garments and fabric available online. Other sites offer garments and styles that might be seen on high fashion runways. Mud cloth makes a dramatic ethnic impact in home fashions-cushions, upholstery, wall hangings, placemats, etc.
Judy showed some of her own mud cloth articles, produced using her adapted process. The color she finds most difficult to produce is a deep black. In Mali, mud from the swampy inlets of the Niger River produces an intense black when it is used with traditional solutions in a multi-step process.
After Judy’s introductory remarks, we got started with a variety of muds which we painted onto cotton or silk fabric. Mud actually stains the surface of the fibers, rather than truly penetrating the fibers as is the case with dyeing. It is important to have dirt ground fine and mixed with just enough water to make the mud about the consistency of buttermilk. Too dry and the mud sits on top of the cloth and is wasted. Too thin and the colored water bleeds into unwanted areas. Some of us used just paint brushes, while others used stencils to get more control over our designing process.
Once the colored solution goes through the fabric, a chemical solution (forget the name) is painted on the back. The pigment in the mud is attracted to the chemical solution and bonds instantly to the outside of the cotton or silk fibers. An alternate method, painting soy milk onto the mud designs, requires weeks of curing but greater color intensity. We went for instant gratification.
Our members had a wide variety of mud cloth projects: scarves, wall hangings, pillow covers, cloth for a tunic, and placemats. As always, Marlene’s dogs kept us company. By the end of the day we were tired but happy with what we had accomplished!