Bark cloth is a material made from the bark of trees in the mulberry or fig tree family. These trees can be found in many parts of Asia, the Pacific islands, The Caribbean and East Africa. In the Pacific Islands the cloth is known as Tapa cloth or Ngatu.
In the Buganda kingdom of Uganda, bark cloth has been in production for over 600 years and the production of it was registered as “a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO in 2005.
In Uganda the cloth is cultivated from a particular fig tree indigenous to this country known as the Mutuba tree by master craftsmen from the Ngonga clan of the Buganda people.
The finest and best bark cloth in Uganda was often used in distinguished ceremonial or cultural practices and worn by kings and dignitaries. It was also often worn in a loose toga style by men and women and has been sewn and tailored to make more modern outfits.
In all the regions of the world it is made it is thought of as a highly prized material and the best bark cloth is still presented as a gift at weddings in these regions today.
The process of producing the cloth is quite labour intensive as it involves the bark being peeled from the tree and stretched out onto logs. It is then beaten with wooden mallets to stretch it out and soften its fibres.
A single well nurtured tree combined with the skill of a master craftsman can produce in excess of 400 sq m of bark cloth over the span of 40 years. The results of this hard work are very beautiful and the cloth has many versatile properties. As this material it is grown and produced from tree bark it is 100% natural and ecologically sound.
The process of treatment can determine the suppleness and flexibility of the fabric produced from the bark. Bark cloth can range from the very stiff and coarse to the very soft and supple. Whatever the quality it is a very adaptable material to work with and can be easily painted or printed on.
The material can be used to make clothing, accessories and home wares and has been utilised by many designers such as Gloria Wavamunno and Jose Hendo.