Barkcloth workshop with Bobby Britnell

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! 😉



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 (ʻolunga)
Women preparing a large tapa (ʻolunga)

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 (ʻolunga)
Initial beating of the barkcloth tu tu strips (ʻolunga)

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

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.