Conserving Barkcloth

Our conservation team have been looking at a sample of our barkcloth in preparation for some exciting workshops later this year (postponed from this Spring). 


Barkcloth is a non-woven cloth made from the inner bark of certain trees and flowering plants, it was used throughout Oceania, central Africa and other areas of the tropics. Barkcloth had enormous social and spiritual significance and always belonged to women. It was often used as clothing, soft furnishing, room dividers and many other functions up to the 20th century.

Barkcloth is still culturally important and highly prized and continues to be produced today. 

To make it, the inner bark is stripped and soaked to soften and then beaten with wooden mallets to stretch and widen it into the cloth. The result is a surprisingly soft and strong material which is then dyed and decorated with hand-painted, rubbed, printed or stencilled designs. 

The planned workshops have given us a brilliant opportunity to take a look at these wonderful items in our collection. As they are essentially paper (made of beaten bark), they fall under the remit of paper conservation. As the in-house paper conservator my task will be to gently unfold, clean and make small repairs where necessary and plan some new spacious storage of the items. We will also get the chance to do a little more research and take some better photographs, so watch this space!

Amy Junker Heslip, Paper Conservator

2 Responses

  1. Adam Pride

    Having sailed across the Pacific in 1989 and 1990 I have quite a lot of souvenirs which include some masi (I think the Fijian name for mulberry bark) and tapa (Tonga)
    I love the sort of fact that this is beaten from natural fibers, without chemicals, or anything but human effort.
    In many islands in Fiji in the evenings its magical as you can hear the singing – and also the noise of the masi hammers as the women in family groups beat the masi into cloth.

    • Amy Junker Heslip

      Hi Adam, that sounds wonderful.
      I was fortunate enough to attend a course at Glasgow University (not so close to the Pacific Islands!) in 2018 on Barkcloth conservation and siapo-making workshop . As part of the course I got to beat the bark into a (small) piece of textile and decorate it. Its really hard work and I can’t image the skill that goes into making those huge, and very thin textiles.
      Thanks so much for your comments.

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