Skip to main content
Select Source:

bark cloth

bark cloth, primitive fabric made in tropical and subtropical countries from the soft inner bark of certain trees. It has been made and used in parts of Africa and India, the Malay Peninsula, Samoa, the Hawaiian Islands, and the Fiji Islands and perhaps reached its highest perfection in Polynesia and parts of Central America. Lengths of branches or of young stems are cut from trees, such as the fig, the breadfruit, or the paper mulberry. The outer bark is removed; the inner bark is cut in narrow strips and then alternately soaked and beaten with a grooved or carved wooden mallet, or beetle, until the fibers are well matted and become thin and flexible. Gum is sometimes added, and pieces may be joined and beaten together to form large sheets. The peeling and beetling are usually done by the men; the decorating, by the women. Patterns, often elaborate, may be sketched or may be applied by block printing or by leaves dipped in dye and pressed on the cloth. The cloth may be gummed or oiled to make it waterproof. Tapa cloth is a fine variety made in the Pacific islands. Bark cloth is used for loincloths, skirts, draperies, and wall hangings; in thick layers it makes an excellent bed. So ancient is the art of making the cloth that it is deeply involved in religious and ceremonial life. In Borneo a strip of the cloth signifies mourning. In Malawi it has traditionally formed the initiation dress of girls. In India some sects prescribe bark cloth as the dress of a religious recluse.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"bark cloth." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 6 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"bark cloth." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 6, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bark-cloth

"bark cloth." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved November 06, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bark-cloth

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Bark Cloth

Bark Cloth

Bark cloth was one of the first cloths known to be made on the African continent, though its exact origins are lost to history. Bark cloth was made by peeling the inner bark off trees and beating it until it was soft. The first peoples known to use bark cloth were the Kuba, living in the present-day nation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The peoples living in the forested regions of Africa, including the Congo Basin and West Africa, used bark cloth extensively. Bark cloth was fashioned into skirts and robes long enough to drape around the entire body. The inner bark of the ficus tree was one of the most often used for bark cloth. Patterned bark cloth garments were made from the different colored bark of various trees, which were combined to create geometric designs, and sometimes the bark cloth was painted.

Many other Africans used bark cloth, but some nomadic herders, who moved place to place as seasons changed or food grew scarce, replaced it with animal skins and others began weaving fabrics. Woven fabric has now replaced garments made of bark cloth or animal skins, but the Buganda people of Uganda did create bark cloth garments into the 1950s.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Blauer, Ettagale. African Elegance. New York: Rizzoli, 1999.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Bark Cloth." Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages. . Encyclopedia.com. 6 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Bark Cloth." Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 6, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/fashion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bark-cloth

"Bark Cloth." Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages. . Retrieved November 06, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/fashion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bark-cloth

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

tapa cloth

tapa cloth: see bark cloth.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"tapa cloth." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 6 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"tapa cloth." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 6, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tapa-cloth

"tapa cloth." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved November 06, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tapa-cloth

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Bark Cloth

BARK CLOTH

The term "bark cloth" has been known by various names in the Pacific Islands, including: tapa or kapa (Hawaii), ngatu (Tonga), ahu or ka'u (Tahiti), masi (Fiji), and autea (Cook Islands). "Tapa" is the popular word now used to describe bark cloth throughout the Pacific Islands. Bark cloth, or tapa, describes the fabric whose source material is the bark of a tree or similar plant material grown in tropical areas around the world and is, therefore, cellulosic. Like felting, bark cloth produces a nonwoven fabric. Like felting, bark cloth or tapa is produced in a warm, moist environment. While the bonding of fibers in felt is mechanical, the bonding in bark cloth is chemical.

One of the plants carried by exploring Polynesians was paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), called wauke by Hawaiians. In addition to paper mulberry, several other plants found in tropical locales have been used for making bark cloth.

Production

To start the bark-cloth–making process, the inner bark (bast) of a tree or plant was stripped or removed from its source, the outer bark of a tree or branch, and cleaned. The bast fibers were then placed in water, often seawater, causing the fibers to break down (ferment or ret) into a somewhat sticky substance resembling bread dough. The substance was spread on a specially carved flat wood surface called a kua kuku in Hawaiian and then beaten with grooved wooden beaters, called hohoa, of various thicknesses. As the substance was beaten, it became wider, longer, and thinner and began to dry. It was spread into a thin sheet and laid out to dry with stones holding the edges in place against the winds. The result, depending on thickness, was a fairly supple, somewhat paperlike sheet of fabric. The beating of a hohoa on a kua kuku was also reportedly sometimes used for sending messages. The special houses or sheds used for beating tapa were called hale kuku, and when people gathered for beating, it could be compared to a modern quilting group or party.

Bark-cloth–making was refined in many areas of Polynesia, especially Hawaii. Though pieces of tapa were most commonly beaten or pounded together to make larger pieces, tapa pieces were also sewn together with fiber and a wooden needle. Edges were turned under and fused, by beating or sewing, for evenness. Various thicknesses for different purposes could be achieved in the beating process. Fabric could be made so thin as to be gossamer, or thicker strips of the fabric were sometimes plaited.

Decorative Bark Cloth

Many sources agree that Hawaiians developed the most complex and greatest number of decorative prints for bark cloth. Some tapa was dyed first by soaking, or sometimes by brushing the dye onto the fabric, or even beating an already dyed piece of tapa into a larger piece. The Hawaiians carved designs into pieces of bamboo often shaped like thin paddles. These strips of carved wood were then used to stamp or print on the tapa with dyes from plants and soil and other sources. The Hawaiians were careful and precise printers, making sure that patterns were straight and continuous. Several patterns might be used on one length of tapa, creating unique patterns. Interesting patterns could also be obtained by plaiting or twisting pieces of tapa or other plant materials into a long strip and then pressing the length against the tapa. The most common colors used were brown, black, pink, red, green, pale to medium blue, and yellow.

Uses

Bark cloth was derived and used as fabric in other tropical areas well into the late twentieth century. South American Indian populations still living in the remote forests of Brazil, Panama, and Colombia used bark cloth, called damajagua (Colombia), as sleeping mats. Based on photographs and descriptions of researchers, the bark cloth of the South American Indians is crude compared with the bark cloth produced in the Pacific Islands. It appears that one of the biggest reasons South American bark cloth was coarser than that of Polynesia is that the retting time allowed for the bast fibers was considerably shorter, overnight, compared with the several days of retting by Polynesians.

Throughout the Pacific Islands, bark cloth was used as a household fabric for both bedding and clothing, and in making ceremonial objects. As clothing, the fabric was wrapped and tied onto the body. It could be gathered or pleated in various ways to create decorative effects for ceremonial occasions.

In everyday use, women commonly wrapped the bark-cloth fabric, called a pa'u, around their bodies and tied and tucked the ends in to keep it in place. Women commonly covered only the lower part of their bodies between the waist and knees with the pa'u.


The malo, worn by men, was also wrapped around the body and between the legs to protect the genitalia. The malo might or might not have a flap in the front, which could be tucked away depending on tasks that needed to be performed on a given day. Originally only men performed the hula. When performing, additional pieces of tapa could be tied over the malo. Tapa was also tied around the shoulders by both men and women when a little extra warmth was needed. Such capes were called kihei.

The largest and most elaborate pieces of Hawaiian tapa were made into bedding. Five to eight sheets of plain white tapa were sewn along one edge and then topped with a dyed and watermarked piece. During cool nights the layers could be draped over the sleeper, or laid back, for desired warmth. Tapa was also scented on occasion. Sap, leaves, or flowers were mixed with oil and heated and then added to a dye.

Bark cloth is rarely used for clothing today. It lacks the pliability of woven fabrics, it tends to break down when wet, and processing is labor intensive. The fabric does, however, give important information about the tropical cultures in which it was developed. Hobbyists, historians, and others continue to make bark cloth to study and to keep the knowledge and skill of tapa-making alive. In the Pacific Islands, tapa was not found in common usage after the turn of the nineteenth century.

See alsoFelt; Nonwoven Textiles .

bibliography

Abbott, I. A. La'au, Hawaii: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants. Honolulu, Hawaii: Bishop Museum Press, 1992. Abbott is a world-renowned psychologist and Hawaiian ethno-botanist of Hawaiian and Chinese extraction.

Hiroa, Te Rangi [Sir Peter H. Buck]. Arts and Crafts of Hawaii: Clothing. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1957. Buck was director of the Bishop Museum from 1936 to 1951. He was the son of a Maori chieftess and an Irish father. He served as physician and anthropologist and is noted for his substantial contributions to Pacific ethnology.

Kaeppler, A. L. Artificial Curiosities. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1978.

Kooijman, S. Tapa in Polynesia. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1972.

Carol A. Dickson and

Isabella A. Abbott

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Bark Cloth." Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. . Encyclopedia.com. 6 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Bark Cloth." Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 6, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/fashion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bark-cloth-0

"Bark Cloth." Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. . Retrieved November 06, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/fashion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bark-cloth-0

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.