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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.

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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.

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tapa cloth

tapa cloth: see bark cloth.

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