Barkcloth in the Americas

Central America

Aztec accounts were kept on paper called amatl, made from fig bark. Moctezuma had a ‘great house’ full of such record books. Tonalamatl were ‘books of fate’ or reference books for priestly guidance made of long strips of amatl prepared and coated to take paint. Most amatl was used as document paper for recording transactions, accounts, land records also maps, records of migrations and trail documents. The Codex Tepotzotlan, in the Ulster Museum, Belfast is an example.

Some of this regard for bark paper persists in the central highlands area of Mexico where the manufacture of amate survived the conquest. It is made in Otomi villages of western central Mexico. Since the 1960s Nahuas from Guerrero purchased amate from the Otomi to use for highly colourful paintings for general sale both to local people and tourists. The new painted amates are representations of events in village life (see number 135). The wild fig tree (xalama) and the mulberry (moral) make the whitest paper, other sources including and the nettle tree (jonote) producing darker shades. These are combined to make a paper with characteristic swirling markings. A distinct tradition, using cut out figures in single colours of local gods, is a product of the Otomi in the Pahuatlan region (see number 136).

South America

Masks and body coverings associated with spirits of the forests have traditionally been made using barkcloth as a base material or covering on which designs are painted by peoples of the North-west Amazon. Masks, called Yakokosutiro (“clothing of tears”) are made by Tukano Indians of the Upper Negro River. Barkcloth has also been used for small decorative belts.


One of the least known products from Jamaica (and other islands in the West Indies) is a form of bark produced from trees of the genus Lagettaria, the cabbage tree, producing a net-like arrangement of fibres usually referred to as lace-bark. One example is the child’s costume with bonnet which was made in the 1820s. A second example is a book of doyley designs made from elements of lace-bark, again to suggest ways in which the product could be economically useful.