|Bark Cloth - Then and Now
Patricia L. Cummings
The difference between the two types of bark cloth will be explored and explained in this article that takes a look at both the
traditional, beaten cloth made from certain types of bark, and twentieth century woven bark cloth intended for home
After purchasing a packet of "bark cloth," at the New England Quilt Museum, I became more enchanted with its assigned
name. The seller described the product as: “Eight 6" squares of 1940s/1950s vintage bark cloth, not reproduction!”The bark
cloth is soft, textured, and woven with a particular kind of weave called a “momie weave.” Textiles:Ninth Edition, for which
a full citation will be provided later on in this article, reveals that the momie weave is "a class of weaves with no wale or other
distinctive weave effect, resulting from an irregular interlacing pattern." It is created on a loom, with either a dobby
attachment or an electronic control.
Here are a four examples from that packet. These home-decorator quality swatches are woven bark cloth sample swatches
from the 1940s/1950s.
Sample Swatch #1
Sample Swatch #2
Sample Swatch #3
Sample Swatch #4
The above images all show the textures typical of factory-woven bark cloth from the 1940s/1950s. Originially, these
swatches were collected by Margy Norrish of Cinnamon Studio, Groton, MA.
Beware! There Are Two Different Types of Bark Cloth!
Early Textiles Made Of Bark? Yes!
Traditionally, in various parts of the world, the inner bark of certain trees was processed so that it could be fashioned into
clothing and wall decorations. First the bark was soaked in sea water for two weeks. Then, the bark fibers were beaten to
compact them and to make them thin. If a layer were too thin, additional layers were added by attaching them with a starchy
substance. One of those is glue-like substances is derived from arrowroot, a tropical American plant, Marania arundinacea,
whose rhizomes yield an adhesive starch. Other natural, plant-based binders are utilized in other locations.
The following locations were mentioned as areas that produced bark cloth: Oceania, Indonesia, Northern Luzon in the
Philippines, Japan, New Guinea, the Tlingit and Kwakiutl tribes of the American Northwest; The Pacific Islands of Fiji,
Samoa, and Tonga; South Africa, and Central Africa. More often than not, most people seem to think of Hawaii as the main
source of bark cloth. While Hawaii is attempting to revive its tradition of bark cloth production, Tonga still actively make the
Example of Tapa Cloth
Tapa cloth, configured in (9"-11") "Windmill" blocks and three inch wide "Flying Geese Strips." Purchased in Solana Beach,
California in 2001, the piece measures 46" x 65", and was brought home to demonstrate block designs to grade school
children. Photo courtesy of Jane Crutchfield.
Types of Trees and Plants Utilized
Often, the mention of bark cloth making has been in conjunction with use of the Paper Mulberry tree, called wauke, in Hawaii,
the Latin name of which is Broussonetia papyrifera. A certain kind of Fig tree's bark is also good for this purpose, that of the
Ficus natalensis. The Breadfruit tree, Artocarpus comunis, that grows in Hawaii, is yet an additional source of useful bark.
Baskets are made from the bark of Red Cedar, Acrocarpus fraxinifolius, by Native Americans of the Northwest.
A Rose by Any Other Name...
In Hawaii, the cloth made by this process is called “kapa,” which means "the beaten thing." The word "tapa" is used in Tahiti,
the island from which Captain James Cook introduced this kind of cloth to the world. In Fiji, the same kind of cloth is
referred to as "masi." In Samoa, it is called "siapo," in Tonga, "ngatu," and in Rotuma, "uha." Textile historians simply say
Permission was granted by eBay seller "atrust" of Hawaii for us to share his photo of one of his auctions, the tapa cloth seen
above. This auction first was a buy-it-now deal for $32.00, but was discontinued before a sale was made.
A closer view
This example of bark cloth was sent to us by Roger Chidester, Frederick, Maryland
Often, tapa and kapa are processed so that the end result has repeat designs of geometric units. This same item was re-listed
with eBay by the same Hawaiian company and was sold for the starting bid of $175. + $22 shipping. This proves the view of
appraisers that an item may gain value simply because it has been "published."
Artist Dalani Tanahy credits Malia Solomon for her mission "to discover and replicate the techniques of kapa making," at a
time when Hawaiian residents wanted to revisit the old customs and traditions. She mentions Pua Van Dorpe and the time she
spent in Fiji to learn "the ancient art of tapa making." Tanahy provides an extensive overview of kapa making in Hawaii and a
pictorial account of the step-by-step process of kapa making.
How is Traditional Bark Cloth Produced?
To make bark cloth, the bark fibers are beaten with a piece of hardwood. The strokes are done in a rhythmic manner and are
said to have carried messages among some tribes. The final beating involves imparting an imprint with a bamboo stamp. The
cloth is sometimes bleached, and then decorated by painting, stenciling, or staining. In Tonga, the koka tree, Bischofia
javanica, yields a brown substance that is painted onto the bark cloth.
Certain tropical plants yield juices and various other kinds of trees yield stain that results in making the cloth brown or black.
The design patterning on some of these early bark cloth examples is just incredibly intricate. In one case a banana leaf was
used as a stencil. A mallet and a stamp could engrave small designs all over the surface of bark cloth. Like paper, the cloth is
weak when wet, and it falls apart.
According to the book, Textiles 5,000 Years: An International History and Illustrated Study, edited by Jennifer Harris, (New
York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1993), 51, in the process of making bark cloth, the bark is sewn together with the
same fiber threaded into a needle fashioned from bone, wood or bamboo.
Nothing New Under the Sun
For centuries, the world's people have turned to trees as a way to clothe themselves. We need not look further than the fig
leaves in the Garden of Eden! The utilization of certain colors to signal one's rank and social standing is another idea that has
been with mankind, seemingly forever. The Harris book cited above states that red and yellow colors of tapa were suitable to
be worn only by the “higher ranks of society.” There are many excellent examples of people wearing barkcloth textile
“fashions” in the book, World Textiles: A Visual Guide to Traditional Techniques by John Gillow and Bryan Sentan, (Boston,
New York, London: Little Brown & Co., 1999), 101-102.
Modern Bark Cloth Clothing Made from Woven Fibers not Bark
The shirt seen here is made from woven cloth, not bark, but retains a tropical flavor with its bright fabrics and traditional-
With the gracious permission of the eBay seller "yvette attic" I am able to show
this Hawaiian shirt that was produced in the 1960s,sold at J.C. Penney
Label with washing instructions
Barkcloth Shirt from Hawaii
photo courtesy of Linda Laird
Linda Laird sent two photos, back and front, of a Hawaiian shirt that was first purchased by her aunt who went to Hawaii in
the 1950s or 1960s. Since her aunt and mother were the same size they often traded clothes. Eventually the shirt found its
way into Linda's textile collection. She reveals that her mother's prediction that the shirt will come back into style every 10
years has proven to be true!
This is the back of Linda's shirt. Photo by Linda Laird
Traditional Painted Bark Cloth - for Decoration
In some countries that make bark cloth, "poor" is the person who does not own a piece of decorative bark cloth to display, or
to have handy as a gift for a special occasion, such as an anniversary.
Antique hand-painted bark cloth features a groundhog and a bird.
Photo provided courtesy of Wendy Kelly
Wendy Kelly, a.k.a. "kellyww," is an eBay seller who has graciously shared two photos of this piece of indigenous folk art.
They show the piece, front and back. The challenge is in getting the antique item to lie flat.
Back of the same "tapa" with decorative painting
By now, you must have realized that the traditional bark cloth was made by beating bark into thin layers. Today's bark cloth is
woven, using a variety of fibers from cotton to rayon to linen to polyester, and even Fiberglas®. Fabric we know as bark
cloth today was first imported from France in the 1920s and called cretonne. The book, Textiles: Ninth Edition, cited at the
end of this article as a reference, states that "cretonne is a plain weave fabric similar to chintz, but with a dull finish and a
large scale floral design." Some fabrics offered in online auctions are labeled barkcloth, but instead are really chintz. If the
surface of the fabric has a glazed appearance and is shiny, it is the latter.
What Bark Cloth Is Not
Bark cloth is not chintz or printed calico fabric. The name "bark cloth" also does not refer to recent print fabric that is not
textured, but is made to look like the bark of birch trees or other trees.
The above swatch is 100% cotton printed fabric. Due to its weave construction, it would not be called "bark cloth," although
the print design resembles Birch bark. Designer and manufacturer of this fabric is unknown.
Here is another 100% cotton, simulated Birch bark fabric that would not be considered "bark cloth." This fabric was designed
by Janet Orfini for Northcott Lyndhurst Studio as Farmers Market 6013. Though the above two swatches look like bark, they
do not possess the actually thick, nubby texture of true woven bark cloth.
A Collection of Thoughts Gleaned Online
Bark cloth was brought back to mainland America by those who served in World War II during the 1940s.
This kind of cloth often was seen on shirts printed with colorful flowers and tropical designs.
With its large scale motifs, the cloth seemed perfect for slipcovers and draperies, and was a very popular home decorator
fabric of the 1950s.
In her book, The Complete Guide to Vintage Textiles by Elizabeth Kurella (Iola, Wisconsin: Krause publications, 1999), 193,
the author reveals that traditional print colors of this type of bark cloth, are green, brown or orange set on a neutral
background. Below is an example of a 1930s vintage potholder with a large scale print design, of which we can see only part.
My first guess was that it is made of bark cloth. On second glance, I am not 100% sure. It may just be printed osnaburg
cloth, a kissing cousin.
Bark cloth or Osnaburg textured/printed cloth was the fabric of choice for this 1930s vintage potholder trimmed with a Nile
green binding. collection of Patricia Cummings.
Vintage Textured Barkcloth by Margaret E. Meir is a Schiffer Book for Collectors with a Price Guide. With 144 pages and
300 full color images, it provides tips on how to spot new reproduction fabric, how to date and identify bark cloth fabric, and
how to clean, restore, and use them. Although I have not yet seen this handbook, it appears to be an invaluable resource to the
serious collector or dealer.
Today, various companies specialize in reproducing old bark cloth designs from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. The fabrics can
be purchased in either prints or solids, and one can expect to pay $14.50 per yard, on sale, to $25 dollars or more. The fabric
is often 55" wide and is sold in different grades, such as "upholstery grade or clothing grade."
Why Do People Collect Barkcloth?
Why? Some collectors like just “to have” the item, others like “to pet it,” and still others like “to use" it. Bark cloth has a very
nice texture, and is very practical, pretty, and sturdy. One seller describes it as “cat-proof,” as it resists pulls from claws.
Why, yes, and prices can go high on eBay for “the real McCoy.” Best of all, you don't have to tear the bark off of a wauke
tree and go through all the processes of cloth-making. If you live in America, the only green “leaves” you will need are right in
An additional image of a piece of 1940s/1950s bark cloth collected by Margy Norrish.
As always, there is much more to know. At least my initial inquiry into this matter has provided a better understanding of the
differences between traditional bark cloth and the woven textiles that today are called by the same name.
The most intriguing thought was read on the Bishop Museum site: kapa was a birth to death affair in Hawaii and even served
as a covering for the matrimonial bed. How refreshing it is that the younger generations would like to learn the "old ways" and
want to revive this centuries old tradition of making usable and decorative cloth from the mere bark of a tree!
Close-up photo of tapa cloth owned by Jane Crutchfield.
Detailed information about Tapa and its making
Kapas in Hawaii - Artist Dalani Tahaney's website
Bishop Museum - Read about a kapa legend, and the cloth's significance
Source for Purchasing Barkcloth from Hawaii - an online retailer for bark cloth
Textiles:Ninth Edition by Sara J. Kadolph and Anna L. Langford (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2002). - an invaluable,but out of
©Copyright 2007-with additions in 2016. Patricia Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, NH. Do not copy this file
or any of its photos without the written permission of the site owner. All rights reserved. firstname.lastname@example.org