I’ve written previously about the barkcloth exhibition at the British Museum and the acquisition of our own unfeasibly large piece of Tongan barkcloth. So when I saw that Bobby Britnell was running a barkcloth workshop at the SIT Select Festival I just had to sign up. Ever Supportive Partner (ESP), having played an instrumental part in buying our barkcloth, came along too.
Bobby discovered barkcloth when she was visiting southern Uganda and has used it in much of her recent textile work. She and her husband also set up a charity, Hands Up for Uganda, drilling a borehole for water, helping establish a model working farm and developing and selling traditional local crafts.
Bobby explained that barkcloth comes from the mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis), is 100% organic fibre and the first non-woven textile. While we got on with the first exercise, practising running stitch on some printed barkcloth, she described how it was harvested and processed, passing round some grooved wooden mallets used for pounding the cloth – these were lighter than they looked!
We did further exercises, attaching strips and then squares of barkcloth to backing pieces, experimenting with different stitches and thread, including raffia.
On the piece with squares, above, I stitched the squares to the reverse side of the backing piece to provide a contrast of colour and texture.
But barkcloth doesn’t just come in terracotta. Black barkcloth is produced by burying the cloth for several days, while a different species of the mutuba tree produces a cream bark cloth. This can be successfully dyed – and Bobby had brought along some lovely examples to show us.
We also had a go at piecing two different coloured barkcloths together, using insertion stitch (which was new to me).
In the piece above you can see an extra row of stitching (not mine!) in the dark barkcloth. This is quite typical – the pounding process often results in small holes or openings in the cloth, which are patched using handmade sisal thread.
We also experimented with punching holes in the cloth and sanding the surface to create a different texture. This was rather more to ESP’s taste, having been horrified that the workshop was largely based on stitch! He also had a go at weaving thread through the barkcloth fibres, which produced a really interesting effect.
As usual, it was fascinating to see the variety of samples produced by different people from the same materials.
All in all, a great workshop with a fascinatingly tactile material.
Even better, now that ESP has learnt how to handle a needle and thread, he’ll be able to sew on his own buttons when they come off! 😉