Sunday, 17 January 2016

Focus on Fabrics: Bogolanfini

Bogolanfini, otherwise known simply as bogolan has recently taken the Western design world by storm, with the distinctive geometric cloth popping up in all sorts of homewares and decoration sites. Despite this recent emergence in the Western design world, bogolanfini has a long history in Mali, where it originates and where it continues to play an important cultural role.

Bogolanfini by Naktune Diarra, The Smithsonian


Originating in the historic region of Beledougou (which today is known as Koulikoro), bogolanfini cloth has been present in Mali for centuries and is traditionally fabricated by the Bamana people. The word bogolanfini comes from the Bambara language and breaks down into three parts - ‘bogo’ means mud, ‘lan’ means with and ‘fini’ means cloth. 

Over time, the cloth has remained a vestige of Malian cultural practice, despite losing popularity in the 1970s amongst contemporary Malian families. The 1980s and 1990s saw a reappearance of the cloth as Malian creatives such as Ismael Diabaté and Chris Seydou went to great efforts to reinvigorate bogolanfini practices, and began using the cloth in their work. The result of this push towards recognising the aesthetic beauty of bogolan has led to the cloth’s widespread popularity - both within Mali and globally - and has meant that the cloth is now often mass produced and, some would argue, has lost some of its traditional significance.

From the Met Museum Collection

Traditionally, bogolanfini was made only by women, who were responsible for passing down the technique and the knowledge of patterns and symbols to their daughters. Bogolanfini has always played a significant role in Bamana culture, with hunters wearing tunics made of the cloth to protect them, and women using the cloth as wrappers (like sarongs, worn wrapped around the waist) during important events like initiation to adulthood, prior to the consummation of marriage and after childbirth. 

Nakunte Diarra, well known bogolanfini artist. Taken from Indigo Arts


The process of creating bogolanfini is a long, arduous one that traditionally would take two to three weeks. 

1. The Cloth

 The process starts with long strips of handwoven cotton which are called finimugu in Bambara (the cotton is grown locally in Mali, handspan into yarn and then handwoven by male weavers on a wooden loom) that are sewn together to create a large, rectangular cloth. 

2. Mordant 

The natural cotton cloth is then soaked in a solution made from leaves of the N’gallama tree - the tannin from this solution acts as a mordant, and prepares the cloth to absorb the mud dye. The cloth is then removed from this solution and left to dry in the sun - at this stage, the cloth is a vibrant yellow colour. 

3. Mud

Once dried, the artisan will apply muds which are harvested once a year from the bottom of the Niger river. The best mud is found in the middle of the river, and many fishermen spend the month diving to the bottom of the river and collecting this mud - which is a very physically demanding task. This mud is then stored in sealed clay pots and allowed to ferment for a year before being ready to use. 
This mud is applied by the artisan to the dried, yellow cloth in the chosen design or pattern. As the cloth dries, there is a chemical reaction between the mordant and the mud and the cloth absorbs the dark colour of the mud. Once the mud is entirely dry, it is washed off and the final pattern or design emerges.

4. Colour Intensification 

The cloth is then often redipped in the N’gallamma solution to enhance the colour, and to achieve the dark black bogolan, like the one used in our bogolan skirts, artisans are required to paint over the designs again with another layer of mud - this intensifies and sets the colour.

5. Bleach 

Once the mud dye has been sufficiently applied, artisans will use a bleach to remove the yellow traces from the N’gallama solution, or other solutions to turn the yellow into beige and brown hues. After this, what remains is lighter (sometimes white or beige) pattern on a darker background (sometimes black, dark brown or dark red, depending on the design). 

Bogolan from Endé, Mali - Anja Cronenburg


We were drawn to bogolanfini, like many others, for its beauty and simplicity. The handmade nature of the cloth also appealed to us as we learnt more about textiles created in West Africa. For us, supporting local textile fabrication and encouraging the continuation of cultural practices was a driving force for our new collection from Senegal and we are really excited to be able to include a piece made from this gorgeous cloth.

However, it is also important for us to acknowledge the impact bogolan’s growing popularity has had both on the quality of the cloth being produced in Mali, and on the cloth’s cultural and social significance. Given the popularity of bogolan across the Western design world, the demand for the cloth has soared in recent years. Whilst this has increased employment opportunities and generated economic growth in the region, the heightened demand has also lead to many traditional practices adapting to quick, mass-production and losing some of their cultural details. We have learnt that much bogolan is now produced by men, who don’t learn the techniques and meanings of symbols in the same way women traditionally have, and who favour the use of stencils to apply the mud and other time-saving techniques, instead of the painstaking hand painting techniques traditionally used. Many of these men are from across Mali too, so the fabrication of the cloth is no longer a Bamana-specific craft. Many also argue that as the demand for the cloths shifts from traditional uses to modern uses (homewares, fashion etc) that the original symbolic language is no longer valued, and hence is being lost. 

Bogolan artisan adds white pattern to dyed cloth with a stencil - an example of modern bogolan production.
Take from The Smithsonian

The use of bogolanfini in contemporary fashion is thus problematic. Taking something that belongs to a culture and appropriating it for another use without it’s cultural context can lead to a devaluing of culture and can often impact the role of the object in its original context. After discussing it ourselves, we decided that promoting West African textile practices, and directly supporting artisans and their networks was most important to us. By purchasing bogolan directly from Malian fabric traders at Dakar’s Malian Market, who in turn bought the cloth directly from the artisans in Bamako and its surrounds themselves, we hoped to support local textile practice. We spent hours trawling the Malian Market for genuine, handwoven bogolan and chose only the fabric we believed to be produced in the traditional way that we’ve described here. Our hope is that by using local produced and designed fabric, like the bogolan we selected for our Bogolan skirt, that we are supporting and encouraging local textile fabrication. 

Habibi, our bogolan dealer at the Malian Market in Dakar, Senegal

We’re really open to discussions around this, and would love to hear your feedback and thoughts.


  1. Thanks for this background. I've always thought it was men traditionally that produced the cloth. It's great to learn that it is/was women who were the storytellers and artisans.

    What are some key ways to know if you have authentic bogolanfini and also, bogolan that has been produced using traditional methods?

  2. Good question! I'm certainly no expert, but its about negative space, from what I understand. Traditionally, the cloth is hand-painted with the mud, forming the darker design. In mass production, the technique has changed and now the cloth will be stenciled with lighter colours (see the photo above). Also, I always use the trick you taught me Raquel, about checking if the colour of the dye seeps through or not!

    The changing gender roles in the production process is really interesting too. You should look up Nakunté Diarra - she is an incredible artist, and a cultural powerhouse.