Bark as cloth

Cloth made from beaten bark is found only in the tropical regions of the globe. The main centres are in the tropical Pacific Islands, island south-east Asia (the Philippine Islands, Sulawesi, Borneo), east, central and west Africa, central and tropical South America.

World Map

World map showing areas where trees suitable for making barkcloth grow. Map by Henry Lindsay

 

Barkcloth is made from the inner bark or bast of a small number of trees such as paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) in island south-east Asia, Melanesia and most of all by Polynesians of the Pacific Islands. Other trees include the banyan, or Indian fig and the breadfruit tree found throughout the Pacific. The Natal fig is the most common tree used for barkcloth-making in eastern Africa, as are trees of the Antiaris genus in west Africa and southeast Asia.

Mulberry Tree

Paper mulberry tree, Fatu Hiva, Marquesas Islands, 2001. Photo by Jenny Balfour-Paul

The cloth is produced by removing bark from the tree, then beating the fibres of the inner bark with a mallet of wood or bone. The result is a mass of felted fibres, like thick paper. Layers of beaten fibres can be further felted together to form larger sheets, or size can be increased by pasting sheets overlapping edge to edge. The dried cloth provides a good surface for decorating, using brushes, stamps, stencils and patterns transferred from design boards.

Inner bark being beaten, Ghana, 1973. Photo by Len Pole

Inner bark being beaten, Ghana, 1973. Photo by Len Pole

The cloth once dried and sometimes dressed or decorated is used as clothing, bedding, floor covering, room decoration, shroud, raw material for masks and as gifts on ceremonial occasions. More recently it has been made into table cloths, wall hangings and other forms of souvenir

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