Buying barkcloth

I’m happy to introduce my first guest posting on this blog – by ESP!

Those of you who have followed for a while may have seen occasional references to my Ever Supportive Partner, and assumed from the somewhat sardonic tone that the moniker was ironic. Much of the time it is 🙂 but in fact ESP does have a deep interest in textiles – just not in the type of textiles I make!

He is particularly interested in carpets and rugs, but a visit to the British Museum exhibition on barkcloth sparked off a fascination with this unusual material. So when a piece came up at auction, the fact that it measured around 4 x 2.7 metres was not enough to deter him. Read on…

It started with a British Museum exhibition of some rarely exhibited textiles and ended with a slightly impulsive purchase of an implausibly large piece of Tongan barkcloth.

Shifting patterns – Pacific barkcloth clothing displayed 77 garments from the museum’s Oceanic collection, dating from the 1700s to the today. Kim blogged about it in March, describing the techniques for adding texture and dyeing this strange material. Production has died out through most of the Pacific, though there has been a recent revival of native Hawaiian crafts, and large-scale production continues in Tonga.

The Tongans continue to create large pieces of barkcloth for use in marriage and funeral ceremonies. The exhibition had photos of large cloths laid for recent royal funeral processions. Lengths of ngatu – the Tongan name – have long been used to line pathways for members of the Tongan royal family to walk along and even drive their cars on.

Women preparing a large tapa (en.wikipedia.org/Tauʻolunga)
Women preparing a large tapa (en.wikipedia.org/Tauʻolunga)

Then last month an example appeared at an auction house in Salisbury in one of the regular carpet, rug and textile auctions at Netherhampton Salerooms. When only one other bid was made I jumped in and won it at £90.

Barkcloth, or ngatu, is made from the pounded inner bark of the paper mulberry tree. Thin shoots are cut and the bark is removed. Strips of inner bark are removed from the outer, producing strips a few cms wide and 2m in length. These are then soaked for a few days.

Initial beating of the barkcloth  tu tu strips (en.wikipedia.org/Tauʻolunga)
Initial beating of the barkcloth tu tu strips (en.wikipedia.org/Tauʻolunga)

These strips are stretched by pounding and eventually glued together with a root starch like tapioca. Sheets are built up to a certain size by an individual household and are then moved into a larger communal building to be beaten and glued into larger pieces. The examples at the British Museum showed how textures were literally beaten into the cloth by patterned grooves in the wooden mallets, though there’s no evidence of this on my cloth.

After drying the cloth, rust brown dyes are applied. The dye should come from the red bark of the Koka tree, a type of cedar. There’s a video of the process here. Other sources say that mangrove roots or even orange soda are used. Painting, perhaps using blocks or stencils, follows. Modern pigments produced from brick dust and soot, tyres, and ironmonger’s paint are used as well as more traditional colourings.

Buying something unseen at auction is always a bit risky. A rather dubious and tatty-looking cloth was delivered in a van. Carefully unrolled in the garden, it was soft, fibrous and layered.

The design is a traditional one. There are rows of doves, Norfolk pines (with sun, moon and stars), sea eagles, the Tongan crest and lions. The lions reflect British historical ties. Alongside the doves, on the edges, are the langanga – measurement units which give a clue to the original size of the cloth. This is just a fragment of a much larger piece.

The Tongan seal, the eagle, the pines and the doves
The Tongan seal, the eagle, the pines and the doves

Words painted on the cloth say KO HALA PAINI – the pathway of pines. This is a reference to the road, fringed with Norfolk pines, that leads up to the royal palace in the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa.

There’s a modern cloth with a very similar design and size in the National Museum of New Zealand, which actively collects modern barkcloths. The painting has much better detail and precision.

There are barkcloths in various UK collections but they don’t seem to be on display. There’s a piece in the British Musem that the Blue Peter programme helped create in the 1970s during a visit to Tonga. In 1972 it was claimed to be the largest piece of barkcloth ever to leave Tonga. The cloth on my wall is a little bigger. 🙂

Shifting patterns – Pacific barkcloth clothing has been extended and is now at the British Museum until 6 December 2015.

What ESP doesn’t say is how we eventually managed to hang it. After it had lain rolled up in our hall for a couple of weeks (where it was a perilous trip hazard every time I came downstairs), we finally connected two sturdy cardboard tubes using bamboo and fishing twine and draped the cloth sideways over them. It means you can see only one half of the cloth (and sideways at that), but given the limited space we have available, that was the best we could do! Please don’t tell the British Museum. 😉

The barkcloth - or at least half of it  - hanging on the wall
The barkcloth – or at least half of it – hanging on the wall
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3 thoughts on “Buying barkcloth”

  1. Very interesting read Kim and ESP! One of my daughters spent 4 months on the Fijian island of Ovalau during her gap year, teaching geography to schoolchildren. She brought back some bark cloth, but only small pieces without the level of decoration your piece has. It was great to see it hanging in your house the other evening – didn’t have time to look at it properly during our Makerhood meeting. I am sure Afroretro would love to see it as they use bark cloth for their makes. I must go and have a look at the pieces in the British Museum!

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