Bark cloth has been made throughout tropical and subtropical communities for ages and was a symbol of stature of the social elite. Today bark cloth is used as a sustainable, renewable material outside of these traditions. Traditionally, the inner bark of a fig or paper mulberry tree was harvested then through a two-week process of soaking and pounding the bark until it is thin, flexible and strong. Then a gum base is applied to attach pieces of the bark cloth together. Finally, after the men had gotten the bark cloth to this stage, the women painted it. Bark cloth was used for various ceremonies from mourning to weddings. The traditional Ugandan production of bark cloth is so specific it is considered a masterpiece of cultural and world heritage and is certified by UNESCO.
The final product is a strong, light, soft, textured material that withstands high humidity.Unlike Rayon and Lyocell, both made from tree pulp, bark cloth can stand high-humidity locations and the dampness does not cause shrinkage.
Aside from locals in Africa, Hawaii and other equatorial locations, there is a more modern production of bark cloth as well. The modern production is more of a weave and incorporates some Lycra or other material into the cloth and uses machinery for the pounding. The advantage of using bark cloth is that it is a natural process and the bark is renewable since it can be harvested from the same tree once a year. However, this more modern production often requires starting the material in one country and shipping it to another to be finished which counteracts some of the sustainability that is desirable about using bark cloth.
Bark cloth is used for hats, bags, as well as interior design fabrics. In the 1950’s there was quite a bit of bark cloth used for interior, and this vintage bark cloth is available widely online. While it is difficult to find any specific name brand designers using bark cloth, it seems that with the new Bark Cloth Initiative between Germany and Uganda that there will be more bark cloth on the market and hopefully it will trickle into mainstream fashion. At the moment, most examples of bark cloth are in textile museums, online purchases of vintage materials and local tropical communities.
At present modern bark cloth is also used by quilters and can be purchased from the New England Quilt Museum. Bark cloth can also be purchased by the BarkCloth Hawaiian Fabric Shop phone at: 808.422.4321. GANDRUD