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Cloth that Grows on Trees

Date Dec 6, 2006 - Apr 15, 2007
Curated by Max Allen

Exhibition Overview

In tropical regions around the equator, people make clothes and ceremonial textiles from bark-cloth. Such cloth is not woven on looms; instead, it is pounded and stretched into thin, flexible sheets that are as smooth as paper, but much stronger. In fact, in many places pounded bark was probably the ancestor of paper.

The 2006 exhibition Cloth That Grows On Trees includes bark-cloth from Tonga, Uganda, Borneo, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Curated by Textile Museum co-founder Max Allen, this is the first major exhibition of bark-cloth from the museum's collection, and the first in a Canadian museum.

Additional Information

In the tropics, where the climate is too hot or too wet to produce wool, silk or cotton, people make “cloth” not by weaving it, but rather, by pounding it from the bark of trees.

Sheets of soft inner bark are pounded on wooden anvils to further soften and expand them. Sometimes the sheets are joined together to make huge cloths used as carpets or ceremonial hangings. Smaller pieces are used as clothing. Bark-cloth can be decorated by free-hand painting, by stencilling, or by rubbing it over carved pattern-blocks.

Bark-cloth has been used in regions around the equator since the dawn of history. But perhaps you’ve never come across this ingenious invention. This is the first major exhibition in a Canadian museum of the cloth that grows on trees.

<i>Bark cloth</i>, Venezuela, 20th century
Installation, Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation, Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation, Photo: Jill Kitchener
<i>Bark cloth</i>, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 20th century
Installation, Photo: Jill Kitchener
<i>Ceremonial tunic</i>, Indonesia, early 20th century
<i>Vest</i>, Indonesia, 20th century
Installation, Photo: Jill Kitchener
<i>Hat</i>, Papua New Guinea, 20th century
<i>Bark cloth</i>, Tonga, 20th century
<i>Skirt</i>, Papua New Guinea, 20th century
View Collection Artifacts from this Exhibition

Cloth that Grows on Trees

By Max Allen, 2006

When the young Queen Elizabeth II was crowned monarch of the Commonwealth in 1953, her first royal tour took her to the islands of the South Pacific. She was given a red-carpet greeting by the charismatic Queen Salote on Tonga, and by the paramount chief Ratu Penaia Ganilau on Fiji. In both cases the "red carpet" that was rolled out was neither red nor a carpet. It was actually made from bark-cloth decorated in rich tones of brown, black and cream. As a sign of respect, the bark-cloth was underfoot wherever Her Majesty stepped.

Eight thousand miles to the east, the Baganda people of Uganda have used bark-cloth since ancient times as clothing and ceremonial regalia. And 10,000 miles to the west, in the upper reaches of the Amazon River, the Ticuna people make two-metre tall funeral masks from bark-cloth in the shape of forest spirits and ghostly ancestors.

In tropical areas near the equator, bark-cloth has traditionally been used in the same ritual and mundane ways that people in more temperate climates use woven cloth of cotton, silk or wool. Bark-cloth is the cloth that grows on trees.

Cloth made from tree bark? Isn't it stiff and scratchy? Not necessarily. Bark-cloth is made from the soft inner bark of certain trees (not the rough outer bark) that has been repeatedly pounded and stretched until it is as smooth and flexible as paper, but much stronger. In fact, in many places pounded bark was probably the ancestor of paper.


Bark-cloth surprised and intrigued the 18th-century scientific explorers from Europe who "discovered" the South Pacific islands - about 3,000 years after they had been settled by indigenous Pacific seafarers who, notably, considered bark-cloth to be so important they took seedlings with them on their voyages. The great English explorer, Captain James Cook collected many samples of bark-cloth in his three Pacific voyages beginning in 1769, and the artists and botanists in his crews recorded its techniques and uses. Most of Captain Cook's collections ended up in museums in England and Germany. But some bark-cloth samples were cut up and included in limited edition books detailing his voyages. One such book, published in 1787 with 36 small bark-cloth samples still attached, sold at a recent Sotheby's auction for ?55,000. On the other hand, today you can buy substantial sheets of contemporary bark-cloth online for less than $100 Cdn.

Some of the bark-cloth in this exhibition has been resting in our museum storage for as long as three decades. The reason it has been largely left alone over the years is because at first glance, it looks rather dull and brown, and because it lives in an area of storage with other old Pacific-Island textiles made of palm fibres and dried grasses, which tend to crumble and shed when handled. But because the techniques required to coax usable cloth from tree bark are such a tribute to human ingenuity, and because the cultural narratives revealed in bark-cloth decoration are so intriguing, this cloth that grows on trees has been brought out to tell its stories.


Bark-cloth can be made in various ways depending on local tradition, but the procedure boils down to this: bark is removed from a tree trunk and the soft inner layer is stripped from the rough outer layer. The soft strips are stretched and pounded on a wooden anvil, which is often made from half of a large, hollow tree trunk with its curved side up. Women pound alone or in groups; the percussion sounds reverberate through the whole village. Later, the dried cloth is painted with vegetable dyes or mineral pigments.

Trees (most often Broussonetia papyrifera, the deciduous paper mulberry tree) can be cut down in the wild or cultivated in plantations so the small branches can be carefully removed as the tree grows; this creates a bark that is smooth and free of knots. The Baganda people of Uganda and the Mbuti pygmies in the Ituri rainforest of central Africa cut bark from their trees and then bandage them with banana leaves so the trees heal and continue to grow.

Large pieces of bark-cloth can be made by gluing smaller sections together with tree sap, or by layering and pounding adjacent edges together so the material meshes into a continuous sheet. Designs can be applied in three ways: they can be hand painted with a brush, they can be stencilled using forms cut from heavy leaves or bark or, in modern-day Fiji they can be applied from used X-ray film! The patterns can also be transferred by rubbing pigment onto the surface of the bark-cloth while it is stretched over a slab of wood that has been incised with geometric designs.


The production of bark-cloth is alive and well today in some areas, but disappearing in others as imported woven cloth and clothing take its place. In many tropical regions clothing has never been necessary as a means to keep warm, but was worn instead for modesty and status-marking reasons as well as festive celebrations. Early Christian missionaries were frequently critical of local habits including various degrees of nakedness, and there are remarkable 19th-century photographs of Polynesians obediently covered from head to toe by imitation Victorian dresses - tailored from bark-cloth.

While everyday use of bark-cloth is vanishing, its use as a cultural marker is thriving. For example, extensive use of bark-cloth at weddings is still fa'a Samoa (the Samoan way). And one of Fiji's leading rugby players, Ratu Alifereti Doviverata, was recently married in an elaborately patterned and layered bark-cloth outfit tailored by his bride's aunt.

For people from Tonga - more than 6,000 of whom have formed a prosperous community in Salt Lake City, Utah - the ritual use of bark-cloth continues to be a symbol of cultural integrity and continuity. Consider the Tonga Day celebration in New York City on June 3, 2006, with guests of honour HRH Princess Mele Siu'ilikutapu Kalaniuvalu and football running back Sateki Reno Mahe of the Philadelphia Eagles. Huge sheets of decorated bark-cloth formed a backdrop to the festivities.


An elaborate, multi-panel pattern often seen on Tongan bark-cloth is called Sila 'o Tonga. It was devised at the time of the Second World War and represents the friendship of Tonga, Britain and the United States. The American eagle and the British lion are shown with Norfolk pines and the Tongan coat of arms. The pines, originally from nearby Norfolk Island in the South Pacific, line the approach to the Tongan royal palace and are shown with the sun, moon and stars. The Tongan coat of arms was devised in 1873 by the Reverend Shirley Baker, who was the Tongan king's private counsellor. The motto translates as "God and Tonga are my inheritance." The three stars represent the three main groups of islands in the Kingdom, and the dove with the olive branch represents an ideal of peace and unity.

On the islands of Lake Sentani in Irian Jaya, thick sheets of bark-cloth are painted with images of crocodile boats, human-lizards and other fantastic creatures. The image of a woman's apron included in the exhibition illustrates swirling water and fish - because it is the women who do the fishing. In Borneo, vests are made of bark-cloth painted with very old images of highly abstract dragons; the vests are often reinforced with straight lines of decorative stitching placed crosswise to the grain of the fibre to strengthen the fabric. On the north coast of Papua New Guinea, sheets of bark-cloth are worn as wraparound sarongs by both men and women of the Maisin ethnic group. The hand-painted patterns are formed of interlacing networks of red and outlined in black, which represents the flow of blood and life energy.


Nobody knew that Mount Lamington was a dangerous volcano, so when it blew up in 1951, the more than 4,000 unsuspecting people living on its thickly forested slopes were killed. Mount Lamington is on the huge South Pacific island just north of Australia. It is shared by the independent country of Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian province of Papua, formerly called Irian Jaya. The island is home to a staggering variety of tribal people and hundreds of different languages, with many groups living in remote and inaccessible places.

The Omie people were lucky when Mount Lamington erupted. Most of their tribe (about 2,000 people) lived on the southeastern side of the volcano, which was not destroyed by lava and ash. Nevertheless, the Omie took the eruption as a sign of the mountain's displeasure with several historical events; notably, the coming of the Christian missionaries and the interruption of a months-long sacred ceremony in 1942 - the time when a colonial patrol arrived and recruited Omie to work as carriers and stretcher-bearers in the battle with the Japanese military who had invaded the island. The Omie say the 1951 volcanic eruption was caused by the lost spirits of soldiers who could not return home and had nowhere to rest.

When Australian biographer and essayist, Drusilla Modjeska visited the Omie in 2004, she wrote:

"While the lower Omie burned their ritual bark-cloth at the instigation of [the missionaries], the mountain Omie held fast to an art practice entwined with their view of themselves and the mountain. Although, in deference to Christianity, the mountain Omie gave up the rigorous initiation process that had culminated in the tattooing of clan insignia, they transferred the 'double skin' designs to the bark-cloth they call nyog'e, where it continues to signify the knowledge and wisdom of the Omie. We might see their work as art, but to the women chiefs who produce it, it is the means by which the spirit of both tribe and mountain are given expression. It is both a source of the women's power and a visible manifestation of it."

Bark-cloth paintings by three Omie women - Lila Gama, Jean Magreat Hoijo and Nerry Keme - are included in this exhibition, and others can be seen on the Web site of the Annandale Galleries in Sydney, Australia.


In the Trobriand Islands, the economic relationship between men and women is reflected in two systems of local currency. Men's wealth involves yams, stone axes and ritual jewellery made from shells. Women's wealth symbolizes their fertility and is embodied in decorated banana-leaf bundles and skirts. Individual and family wealth is piled up in funeral ceremonies, but then is recirculated and interchanged. Reciprocal arrangements are fundamental to Triobriand society; services and gifts must always be returned in kind, a way of uniting the society.

It may seem odd that homemade skirts and bunches of banana leaves (impressed with geometric designs made by laboriously straightening and rubbing them over pattern boards) can function as money. But all money, even "mere" paper money printed by a central treasury, is simply a handy and portable way of representing labour. Trobriand money, loaded with symbolic meaning, does not come from a mint - it is the money that grows on trees.


Captain Cook and his crew collected many examples of Hawaiian bark-cloth, which at the time was the main textile used to make garments. Because the Hawaiians were as interested in collecting exotica from Europe as Cook was in collecting exotica from the South Pacific, one of the gifts he brought to Hawaii was a linen shirt. As things turned out, this was the beginning of a fashion revolution.

Today, there is hardly any bark-cloth made in Hawaii, but echoes of it are found throughout the islands and beyond in the form of the "aloha shirt," the Hawaiian national costume and famed symbol of tropical leisure and comfort.

The story of why and how the aloha shirt rose to such prominence is a story of multiculturalism. Hawaii is home to a great mixture of people from the South Pacific, Indonesia, Japan, China, as well as Europe and the Americas. It is said that every extended family includes people from "all over." Textile scholar Linda Arthur talked to a woman who told her: "Although I'm Japanese and Hoole (white), we have Koreans, Hawaiians, and Chinese in our family. If Auntie Reiko came to a family gathering in kimono, Auntie Grace came in cheong sam, and Auntie Soyoung came in hanbok, we'd have a real problem! We strive for ho'okipa (hospitable conduct) and lokahi (harmony), so we intentionally are careful with how we dress. Like most of us here in Hawaii, we're a multiethnic family and there's no better way to show that than wearing aloha attire." As a national costume, aloha clothing incorporates multicultural imagery but increases its scale and colour in a style that is unmistakably and uniquely Hawaiian.

Between 19th-century missionaries urging modesty, and contact with sailors wearing loose, long-sleeved shirts the Hawaiians called palaka, a new way of dressing evolved. It included wraparound sarongs called pareus, made from imported cloth (such as those seen in Paul Gauguin's paintings of Tahiti) and often printed with bark-cloth patterns. Contributing to this new way of dressing were Chinese and Japanese immigrants who came to work in the Hawaiian plantations; they started tailoring businesses and made shirts from the silk kimono fabrics (with large-scale designs) they were accustomed to, and also from bark-cloth prints. As Katy Bevan writes, "The tourist industry of the 1920s saw the white linen-clad American coming to the South Pacific and leaving with bright 'holiday shirts'."

But bright hardly describes the gaudy, flamboyant shirts favoured by tourists, with their oversized palm trees, volcanoes and hula dancers. Another characteristic of aloha imagery (and this is often seen in Japanese kimono imagery as well) is the way the edges of scenes or patterns dissolve into one another in a way that pre-dates the melting edges enabled by computer software such as PhotoShop.

In Hawaii, aloha shirts became accepted - even encouraged - as comfortable business attire tailored from silk or cotton, and subsequently rayon, and now mostly cotton once again. But the Hawaiians preferred calmer designs for both men's and women's clothing. One strategy used to tame the wild patterns was to tailor the clothes with the fabric wrong-side out, so the colourful printing showing through was muted and blurred.

In addition to the recurring Hawaiian clichés (pineapples, leis, hibiscus blossoms, surfboards and guitars), oriental patterns with Japanese bamboo groves or Chinese dragons became popular, and so did patterns straight from the bark-cloth vocabularies of the Pacific Islands. Four such bark-cloth-influenced aloha shirts are shown in Cloth That Grows On Trees. One is a cotton shirt custom made by Harriet's of Hawaii that exactly reproduces the Sila 'o Tonga designs.

The flow of tourists to and from Hawaii has also led to the popularity of bark-cloth as recreation-room decoration. You'd be surprised - and possibly aghast - to discover just how much imitation South Seas decor there is in North American basements.

There is also a whole industry promoting luaus (Hawaiian feasts) in suburban backyards; in addition to roasting a pig and playing a ukulele, you might want some tiki statues and a big sheet of bark-cloth to hang behind your bar. This seems to be the main commercial market today for bark-cloth from Tonga, Samoa or Fiji (often mistakenly advertised as "Hawaiian") - a magic carpet that offers imaginary transport to the exotic islands of the South Pacific.


Cook's Pacific Encounters. Canberra: National Museum of Australia, 2006. This book accompanied an exhibition in Canberra that travelled to the Honolulu Academy of Arts as Life in the Pacific of the 1700s - The Cook/Forster Collection of the Georg August University of Göttingen.

Bill Gregory, Drusilla Modjeska and David Baker. The Barkcloth Art of Omie. Sydney: Annandale Galleries, 2006.

Michael C. Howard, ed. Bark-cloth in Southeast Asia. Bangkok: White Lotus, 2006.

Simon Kooijman. Tapa in Polynesia. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press (Bulletin 234), 1972.

Anne Leonard and John Terrell. Patterns of Paradise: The styles and significance of bark cloth around the world. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1980.

Louis Necker. Etoffes cosmiques - Les anciens tapas du Musée d'ethnographie de Geneve (with 30 pages of colour illustrations). In the Bulletin Annuel of the Ethnographic Museum, Geneva, No. 29, 1986.

Roger Neigh and Mick Pendergrast. Traditional Tapa Textiles of the Pacific. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Annette B. Weiner. "Why cloth? Wealth, gender, and power in Oceania," in Cloth and Human Experience, edited by Annette B. Weiner and Jane Schneider. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Anna-Karina Hermkens. Painting the past and the future - Barkcloth of the Maisin people in Papua New Guinea.

Katy Bevan. "Aloha - Hawaiian shirts blend global influences and laid back island charm" in Selvedge, Issue 12, 2006; and Linda B. Arthur. "The aloha shirt and ethnicity in Hawai'i". Textile, 4:1, pp 8-35, 2006.