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.
I also liked the elaborate stencilled designs from Fiji, where barkcloth has great value, representing textile wealth.
And this fringed waist garment was decorated with geometric patterns using a pen made from coconut fronds.
In the New Georgia group of the Solomon Islands they use indigo to print designs onto white cloth.
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.
This rare piece from the Cook Islands depicts creatures resembling centipedes.
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.
Shifting patterns: Pacific barkcloth clothing runs at the British Museum until 16 August 2015.