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What is barkcloth?

Barkcloth is a type of non-woven cloth produced by stripping, soaking and beating lengths of the inner bark from trees such as paper mulberry, ficus and elm. Barkcloth is produced in countries located along a tropical barkcloth belt which includes the Pacific Islands, Japan, Island Southeast Asia, India, East, Central and West Africa, tropical South and Central America and the Caribbean 

The global barkcloth belt

Map showing barkcloth making regions by Josh Murfitt, adapted from ‘World map blank’ by San Jose (2006), based on Generic Mapping Tools, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Barkcloth is produced by cleaning the stripped bark of its outer layer, boiling or steaming it, then beating it over a log or other hard surface for several hours with heavy beaters made from wood, horn, stone, bone or shell, causing the fibres to soften and stretch. The dried cloth is often decorated, and has a variety uses across the world including for masks, clothing, bedding, mats, tablecloths or souvenirs for tourists. 

The changing use of barkcloth within countries located in the barkcloth belt can be attributed to the introduction of cotton fabrics, changing lifestyles and the loss of trees needed for production. Today barkcloth is still produced in some countries in smaller quantities but remains integral to many aspects of life. 

Where is barkcloth made?

Africa

There were once large centres of barkcloth production in western, central and eastern Africa, including the Congo Basin in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia. Production was also known in West Africa among the Asante of Ghana, and on the island of Madagascar.

It had a wide range of uses, in particular worn as clothing wrapped around the waist, under the arms or toga style and had a variety of domestic use including screening and bedding. Barkcloth also played an important role in ceremonies for birth, initiation, marriage and funerals.  

From the mid-19th into the early 20th century, as imported cotton fabrics became more widely available and as more modest styles of dress were promoted - influenced by the adoption of Muslim and Christian religious practice - barkcloth production and use declined. Among many it began to hold negative associations with the past. Today barkcloth survives among very few communities where it continues to hold special significance and positive links with long held cultural traditions.

In the Ituri rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo loincloths of barkcloth from a number of ficus species decorated with intricate painted patterns relating to the natural world around them continue to be produced and worn by the Mbuti for ceremonies and performances associated with community rites of passage.

Four men strip bark from a tree under lush green foliage. One is making a cut, one pressing on the tree, one is speaking and smiling, and one is observing.Stripping bark from the mutuba treeBukomansimbi Organic Tree Farmers Associatio(BOTFA)Kibinge, Masaka, Uganda, East Africa, June 2016.

 

Among the Baganda in the Masaka region of southern Uganda large rectangles of the distinctive undecorated, reddish brown barkcloth from the mutuba tree (ficus natalensis) continues to be a very visible symbol of monarchy and royal heritage.

Indeed, recognition of the significance of barkcloth production in 21st century Bugandan cultural identity was acknowledged in 2005 when UNESCO proclaimed Ugandan barkcloth making a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Three men seated by a beam over which strips of light brown barkcloth are being beaten with wooden mallets.Beating strips of bark into clothBukomansimbi Organic Tree Farmers Association (BOTFA), Kibinge, Masaka, Uganda, East Africa, June2016.

 

A brown shirt with a vivid pink pattern comprising chevrons, dots, and lines is laid out on a black surfaceV.2019.34.30 Halili or women's blouse of black barkcloth decorated with coloured patches and embroidery: Asia, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Central Sulawesi, Kulawi or Bada, early 20th century.

Indonesia

Barkcloth was once produced throughout Southeast Asia and there was great diversity in regional styles. From reddish-brown cloth in the Nicobar Islands to embroidered garments in Laos, various regional styles developed according to local customs and needs.

On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, barkcloth was commonly used for clothing and domestic items until the end of the nineteenth century. In the highland communities of Central Sulawesi, clothes for special occasions were made from soft, white barkcloth and painted with bold, symbolic designs and bright colours. Intricately patterned sigas (men’s headdresses) and halili (women’s blouses) would have been worn at feasts and important life events. Decorated with geometric motifs and symbols like buffalo horns, four-petalled flowers and suns, the cloths also contained spiritual and ritual importance.

Square of barkcloth dense geometric patterns, brightly coloured in pink, purple, orange and red.V.2019.34.25 Siga or men's headdress of barkcloth, painted with a brightly coloured pattern, worn at feasts: Asia, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Central Sulawesi, Kulawior Bada, early 20th century.

From the early twentieth century, the Dutch colonial government took a more active role in Central Sulawesi and Christian missions were established in the interior. As traditional ways of life and dress were discouraged and imported woven textiles were introduced, barkcloth production and use declined. 

Today, the Lore region of Central Sulawesi is one of the last places that still produces and uses barkcloth in Indonesia. Now recognised and appreciated as a distinctive cultural heritage, makers from Central Sulawesi have exhibited their cloth in National museums and private galleries in Jakarta. It has also been used by contemporary artists, featuring in costumes and installations in international exhibitions.

In recent years, the craftsmanship and sustainable quality of barkcloth has been promoted by artisans in Bali, who partner with makers in Sulawesi to produce bags and accessories. Although Indonesian barkcloth is no longer produced and used on the scale it once was, it continues to be valued as a unique regional art form with environmental relevance for the future.

Japan

Attush, the term for elm barkcloth, has been made and worn by the Ainu, Indigenous people in northern Japan, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands, for centuries. The climate of these regions and the hunting, rather than agricultural, lifestyle of the Ainu are not conducive to producing silk or cotton, which is commonly used in mainland Japan. Ainu clothing is made from barkcloth, animal skin or, from the 19th century, imported cotton. 

The Ainu produce attush, an attractive buff or golden fabric, from the inner bark of young mountain elm trees. The elm bast fibre, known as ohyo, is soaked then processed into thin strips which are woven on a backstrap loom. The resulting fabric, mainly used for robes, is lightweight yet durable. 

Ainu robes have a similar overall shape to robes, or kimono, worn by wajin (ethnically Japanese) in mainland Japan. However, the sleeves of Ainu robes are tapered, which uses less material and is more practical when carrying out tasks. 

Robe with grey vertical stripes on the body and horizontal vertical stripes on the short sleeves and a black pattern, resembling a linocut, at the waist and edge of sleeves.1909.499.48 Man’s robe of striped elm barkcloth (attush) with abstract designs in blue cotton calico applique and embroidery: Japan, Hokkaido, Ainu, 19th to early 20th century.

 

Although the robes are worn by men and women, it is the women who weave the attush as well as make and decorate the robes. Indigo-dyed cotton, acquired through trade, is often appliqued with embroidery to create abstract designs, which are said to variously represent thorns, eyes, stars and possibly animals. These decorative patterns demonstrate the artistic skills and creativity of the maker and are said to please the kamuy (spirits or gods). The patterns are concentrated around the openings (hem, cuffs, and collar) of the garment to provide a protective element from harmful spirits.  

Highly decorated attush robes are reserved for ceremonial occasions with simpler ones worn in daily life. However, due to the colonisation and forced assimilation of the Ainu in Hokkaido by mainland Japanese in the 19th century, the wearing of attush and other Ainu robes has dwindled as has the traditional weaving and embroidery skills necessary to make them. 

A small loom propped dup by several white blocks. Rough barkcloth strands on the left pass over a roller and comb-like barrier to emerge finely woven on the right.A.1909.499.1 Back-strap loom of wood with a roll of striped elm barkcloth (attush): Japan, Hokkaido, Ainu, 19th to early 20th century.

 

Very tall beige, black and red mask with a mouth that includes teeth and spiral eyes towards the bottom. A small fin with a zigzag pattern runs almost the entire length of the edge of the mask on each side.A.1951.372 Ceremonial eharo mask made from a cane structure and covered in barkclothPapua New Guinea, Gulf of Papua, 19th century.

 

Pacific Islands

Pacific Islanders have been making barkcloth for millennia. Produced in large quantities across the islands of Polynesia and Melanesia, Micronesia is not known to be a barkcloth producing area due to the lack of appropriate trees. Often referred to generically as tapa across the Pacific Islands, many Islands have their own names for the cloth such as Fijian masi, Hawaiian kapa, Samaoan siapo, Niuean hiapo and Tongan ngatu. 

The cloths that were created across the Pacific varied in size and intended use. Whilst sheets of barkcloth were made by most barkcloth producing Islands, many Islands also used barkcloth in other ways. 

In Papua New Guinea barkcloth was draped over fibre frames to create visually arresting ceremonial masks. In Niue barkcloth was sometimes worn as a tiputa or poncho, and in Tuvalu barkcloth was used for delicately embroidered belts. In western Polynesia huge lengths of barkcloth would have been presented as gifts at major occasions such as weddings. In Fiji barkcloth was even used for printing newspapers onto. Some Pacific barkcloths were highly decorated, whilst others were left plain stained simply but powerfully with turmeric or other natural dyes.

Rectangle of seemingly thin barkcloth with black and beige geometric patterns divided into three subsections.A.1924.802 Masikesa (painted barkcloth) decorated with stencilled designs, Fiji, late 19thcentury.

Wooden beater resembling a mace with a ridged end to imprint patternsA.1900.214 Wooden barkcloth beater used to imprint designs onto bark cloth, Fiji ,late 19th century.

 

Sleeveless off-yellow poncho with dense black geometric patterns and many weathered fringes on both sides.A.1870.38.1 Hand painted tiputa (ponchowith fringing, Niue, 19th century.

 

The production and use of barkcloth declined in many Pacific Islands during the 19th century due to the introduction of cotton fabrics by European missionaries, traders, and government officials. Today it is being revived in places such as Hawai’i, and remains strong in the Islands of Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Samoa and Fiji.

Jamaica

The tradition of making barkcloth was introduced to Jamaica in the 17th century by African slaves from Ghana and the Congo taken to labour on sugar and coffee plantations. The practice was modified to suit the natural environment of Jamaica and the resources it provided. Lace bark, as it became known, was made from the bark of the fibrous lagetto tree. Its most common use was for the production of household items and clothing. Unlike other barkcloth, lace bark was made by teasing out the refined fibres of the lagetto bark by hand and drying the fibres in the sun. The end result was a fine cloth which resembled lace or linen, hence its name. 

By the end of the nineteenth century as the trees became scarce due to overuse, the production of lace bark rapidly declined. Recently a small grove of lagetto trees was discovered in Jamaica and there is currently a petition to UNESCO to have the area designated as a world heritage site. 

Making barkcloth today

In April 2020 National Museums Scotland, in partnership with the University of Glasgow, was due to hold barkcloth masterclass led by Samoan artists Reggie Meredith Fitiao and Ulisone Fitiao, exploring the art of Samoan siapo

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic this event was cancelled and instead Reggie and Ulisone created some videos. Watch this short film to discover the process of designing Samoan siapo in American Samoa. 

Research on our collections

In 2020 the AHRC-funded project ‘A Living Tradition: Expanding Engagement with Pacific Barkcloth which partnered with National Museums Scotland sought to expand engagement with Pacific barkcloth cared for by UK museums by focusing on the way in which barkcloth was and continues to be made and used in the Pacific. 

In spring 2017 the Swiss foundation Kunst und Handwerk awarded a grant to National Museums Scotland for the project ‘The Fabric of Life’. The project suported research into the history of early Polynesian barkcloth in the Museum, shed light on relationships to other collections in the United Kingdom, Europe, America and the Pacific region, and explored the significance of this historical material in the eyes of contemporary artists living and working in Oceania today.  

A man and woman in a lab setting ponder the fringed Ainu poncho laid out on a white table.Project Research Associate Andy Mills and NMS Conservation Scientist Lore Troalen looking at Pacific barkcloth at NMS. Photo by Frances Lennard.

In 2016 the Art Fund’s Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant funded project ‘African Barkcloth: Tradition, Innovation and Change’, investigated the contexts of collection, production and use of the National Museums Scotland African barkcloth collection. The majority of the barkcloth was acquired by the Museum between the late 19th and early 20th century by Scottish travellers, missionaries and colonial officials, who were among the first Europeans to visit East and Central Africa.

The objects they collected form the backbone of National Museums Scotland’s early ethnographic collections and are tied into the complex historical relationships between Scotland and Africa. Research also 
took into account the collectors to consider contexts of acquisition which provided an opportunity for critical study of African historical material in these relationships. 

Rectagular cut of light brown barkcloth with a red wavy patternA.UC.822.3 Sample in a volume containing 110 samples of Polynesian barkcloth. Thanks to research we know this was cut from a larger piece of barkcloth also in the collections of National Museums Scotland.

 

Contemporary collecting

Contemporary collecting is core to the development of the National Collections. Recently curators in the Department of World Cultures have collected contemporary barkcloth that speaks to our historic collections. Objects that reflect shifts in the use and purpose of barkcloth for contemporary Indigenous communities across the world can tell inspiring stories of resilience and reinvention. 

Woman wearing bright orange barkcloth walks down a runway with her left arm held out. Long wooden sticks are across her torso couched in black pouches on the outift.

V.2014.73 Art wear by Xenson at the Futuristic Past show, Kampala, 2011, acquired by National Museums Scotland in 2014. Reproduced by kind permission of Xenson Znja.

 

High quality stylish outfit resembling a tweed suit but with a bold orange collar, orange stripes and a large, flowing tail.V.2020.14 Ugandan barkcloth and recycled tweed outfit, created by José Hendo, London, 2019.

Two face masks side by side. Left mask is shades of brown with a floral pattern, right mask is multi-coloured with blue leaves and dense geometric patterns.V.2020.13.1-2 Siapo (barkcloth) face masks for Covid-19 by Reggie Meredith Fitiao, American Samoa, 2020. Donated by the AHRC-funded project ‘A Living Tradition: Expanding Engagement with Pacific Barkcloth’ at the University of Glasgow.

 

 

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