Accepted paper:

Wild silk indigo textiles of West Africa: towards an ethnography of materials


Laurence Douny (University College, London)

Paper short abstract:

Framed within an ethnography of materials, this paper focuses on dyeing materials (indigo compound) and dyeing techniques (pits and pots technologies) employed in the making of wild silk wrappers that constitute an old textile tradition of Marka-Dafing people of Mali and Burkina Faso.

Paper long abstract:

This paper examines the technical processes by which two natural substances that are on the one hand, wild silk (produced by caterpillars) and on the other hand, indigo dye (organic compound), are transformed and incorporated into horizontal woven cotton strips that composed prestigious wrappers worn by Dafing women. This account provides an understanding of how Marka-Dafing people work with natural materials to produce these particular textiles and the production of which, results from long term experiments with matter and involve accurate knowledge about chemical processes, materials properties and efficacy. I propose that transformation techniques were developed through Dafing men and women's sensory experiences of substances, materials and thus of the matter in-the-making. As far as the design is concerned, I show that the contrasting blue and white silk strips that display as a Malinke material identity, bear an aphorism that in the manner of a visual meta-language enables to express critiques to the society that could not be verbalized. Finally, I suggest that wild silk strips qualified as 'diamand' by reference to its white colour perceived as sparkling, define a particular aesthetic of 'shine' that symbolises women's worth, wealth and thus their social status.

panel P26
Anthropology in the material world