Barkcloth at the British Museum

If you live on the Pacific islands of Polynesia or Melanesia, there are few land animals to provide wool or fur, so you’re pretty much restricted to plant materials to produce textiles. Shifting patterns: Pacific barkcloth clothing at the British Museum is a small but fascinating exhibition on this specialist area.

Barkcloth is made by soaking, scraping and beating bark fibres until the desired quality of fabric is attained. The display of beaters included ones made from wood, stone, shell and even whalebone (rare).

The cloth is then decorated by painting, rubbing, stencilling or stamping, and the tools for various techniques are on show. A kupeti is a textured board on which the cloth is laid and then rubbed with pigment to produce a pattern – one on display is made of banana leaf and coconut husk fibre, which didn’t strike me as terribly robust. There is also a wooden roller used to apply black pigment, which produces a pattern of parallel lines, while intricately patterned stamps made from bamboo, wood or turtle shell are carved using sharks’ teeth.

In Hawaii, ribbed cloth is made by laying dampened fabric on top of a grooved board and pressing it into the grooves using a special tool. It is then painted with natural dyes made from berries, leaves and roots and sealed with varnish. There are some lovely examples in the exhibition.

barkcloth hawaii

I also liked the elaborate stencilled designs from Fiji, where barkcloth has great value, representing textile wealth.

barkcloth fiji

And this fringed waist garment was decorated with geometric patterns using a pen made from coconut fronds.

barkcloth coconut

In the New Georgia group of the Solomon Islands they use indigo to print designs onto white cloth.

barkcloth indigo

In Tonga barkcloth is used to commemorate important lifestage events. There was a piece with a pattern of aeroplanes (no picture I’m afraid – it was too high to photograph properly) made during the Second World War when Queen Salote of Tonga personally sponsored the purchase of Spitfires for the Allied war effort!

In the late 1700s Western missionaries encouraged the wearing of barkcloth tunics to cover the body. This beautiful example from the Society Islands was decorated with seaweed impressions.

barkcloth society islands

This rare piece from the Cook Islands depicts creatures resembling centipedes.

barkcloth cook islands

In recent years there has been revived interest in using barkcloth, shown by this striking skirt made by Dalani Tanahy in 2014. Hula groups in Hawaii are starting to wear barkcloth costumes again.

barkcloth modern skirt

Shifting patterns: Pacific barkcloth clothing runs at the British Museum until 16 August 2015.





Published by


Flextiles uses shibori, ecoprinting and felting to create original, one-off upcycled pieces. Extending the life of a garment by an extra nine months reduces its environmental impact by 20-30%.

8 thoughts on “Barkcloth at the British Museum”

  1. What beautiful patterns! Interesting methods to read about, thank you Kim. I have copied this account to my daughter Virginia, who lived on a tiny Fijian island for 6 months during her gap year before university. There were no shops on the island and nobody could afford to travel, so everyone had to make what they needed using the materials available around them. Virginia brought home with her the drinking cups she made for herself out of coconut shells, which took hours and hours of scraping to remove all the inner and outer materials to leave just the hard part of the shell, which has beautiful imprints on it, made by the material that had been scraped off. I’m sure she will have used things made of bark cloth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.