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Mali’s brocade: The best dyed cloth in the world?

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”It has to be soft, 100% cotton, hand-dyed and gently starched,” she states as she circulates among the dozen models about to hit the catwalk with her latest collection. Malian brocade, the imported shiny cotton fabric that – once dyed – is the top choice among elegant West Africans, is enjoying a boom. 

The dyeing and brocade-working sector, which employs an estimated 250,000 people in the capital, Bamako, was a surprise survivor as the Malian economy crumbled after the political and military crisis that began in 2012.

Abdoulaye Sanoko, director-general Mali’s Export Promotion Agency, says when foreign investors deserted Mali, the brocade sector simply looked for new markets. ”The informal nature of the sector was an advantage. The women just got on buses and took their products to neighbouring countries.  We now have new markets and we urgently need to consolidate them. We need to start valuing this sector as a national asset,” he says. ”You can see its value all around but we need more data so we can capitalise on the boom.” 

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It is not known exactly how brocade cloth, which many Europeans associate with upholstery and religious vestments, found its way to West Africa. 

The range of theories is as varied as the large number of time-consuming specialist skills which are involved in making it look stunning. These include embroidering, knotting, folding, painting, wax-stamping, dyeing and, finally, banging the cloth to a shine – never ironing it – with clubs made from shea tree wood.


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Choosing your brocade 

Hassan Bassoum manages one of four shops in Bamako – Bassekou Gamby & Freres – which specialise in white, undyed, brocade.  ”The cotton comes from Africa but the fabric is not woven in Africa. The biggest and best producers are Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.  China makes second-grade brocade, but for the past ten years we have specialised in the European brands. The Europeans come to us with suggested new weaving patterns and we tell them what is going to work,” says Hassan, whose prices start at $11 (£6.50) a metre.

To the untrained eye, the textures and patterns of the different weaves may look alike, but Bamako fruit-seller Koumba Sylla says part of being Malian is knowing how to select your ”bazin”, or brocade in French. 

”We can tell how it will react to the colours we want and whether it will hold the dye well, and whether the lustre will last. The pattern woven into the fabric is not very important. It just has to be big,” says Koumba.

Every day for the past six months she has sat by her stall embroidering motifs onto a six-metre length of white brocade that she intends to have dyed and made into a dress.


Bamako’s dyers 

Like all aspects of fashion, brocade-wearing follows trends.  Super Vainqueur is the leading white brocade of the moment and polman, which is a two-tone purple-bronze dye that leaves the cloth looking crisp while feeling velvety, is the top colour this season. 

Wearing a ”polman” is second-only in prestige to being seen in ”cocaine” – a technique involving wax-stamping and hand-painting the white brocade.  Why cocaine? ”Because the richest people in Mali earn their money through the drug trade,” says Sylla, matter-of-factly.

But the mainstay of the brocade business are its thousands of “teinturieres” or dyers, invariably women, who are found on Bamako’s street corners, bent double over large plastic basins.  On the banks of the Niger river, they spread out their brocade to dry, creating an explosive patchwork that contrasts with the dusty-dull colour of the Sahelian city. 

Ask any dyer why Mali’s brocade is so widely considered the best in the world and they will say it is a secret. But some people believe the key is the speed with which the dyes dry in Bamako’s hot, arid air.


Health hazard 

The sector nurses another secret – a taboo hardly any of the dyers will discuss – the health and environmental hazards of their occupation. Mali has a centuries-old tradition of dyeing cotton using plants, mud and natural soda ash as a water softener. But modern chemical dyes, which are bright and fast, require caustic soda.

Every year hundreds of Malian children, who are never far away while their mothers dye, are poisoned or burnt by the drain-cleaning chemical.

Professor Yena Sadio, head of thoracic surgery at Bamako’s main hospital, heads the only unit in the country able to operate on children whose throats have closed after swallowing diluted caustic soda. ”The large number of children who are accidentally exposed to caustic soda is catastrophic. We have the capacity to treat 200 children per year but there are many more. There is an urgent need to inform the population about the dangers.”

While the informal nature of the dyeing sector may have helped it weather Mali’s economic crisis, its lack of organisation stands in the way of growth. “We need to help the dyeing sector,” says Abdoulaye Sanoko, “to meet the standards set, for instance by AGOA.” That’s the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which offers preferential access to the United States market.  “If we work towards this, we will also find ourselves with a target group for health information,” he says.


By Alex Duval Smith 


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