Textiles in Mali

by Rachel Hoffman
Formerly University of California, Los Angeles

Materials and equipment for dyeing with indigo, Mali. Photo by Rachel Hoffman.


Natural fibers, including cotton and wool, grow with a protective external membrane called the cuticle. Extremely thin, but hard and virtually impermeable the cuticle must be softened and made penetrable to permit dyes access to the absorbent core of the fiber. Once the colorant has been absorbed by the core, the cuticle is resealed so that the newly dyed thread retains its color through repeated washings. In the foreground on the right is a large skein of cotton thread soaking in a ceramic pot filled with a mordant, a strong acid that softens the cuticle layer. As is the case with the botanicals of indigo dyeing, the mordant may be any of several acids; ammonia and animal urine are the most common.