Bark Cloth: The History, Craftsmanship and Fashions of Uganda’s Most Vintage Fabric

bark cloth making

From runways to online shops, designers are incorporating bark cloth (or barkcloth) into their looks because of its sustainability and longevity. Fashion design extraordinaires Jose Hendo and Christian Siriano have used the vintage fabric to make stunning dresses and belts, while others have created trenchcoats and shoes from the material. It’s forgiving of dirt and stains, durable like leather and can be colored with plant and vegetable-based dyes.

While the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named bark cloth making one of the oldest crafts of humanity, even preceding the invention of weaving, many of you, like me, are probably relatively new to the topic. No worries; I’ll share with you what I’ve learned so far.

A Crash Course on the Artistry of Bark Cloth Making

Class is now in session, and I’d like to give you an overview about bark cloth, its origins and explain why it has staying power in sustainable fashions. Bark cloth is the sacred fabric of the Baganda people who live in the Buganda kingdom in southern Uganda. It is harvested from the inner bark of a Mutaba tree (ficus natalensis) during the wet season. The tree is left unharmed as only a thin layer of bark is cut, and bananas leaves are wrapped around the trunk until the next season in nine months.

The bark is heated with fire or boiling water and stretched to soften it; a 12 inch piece of bark can become a 120 inch piece of bark cloth. Craftsmen then pound the bark for hours with wooden mallets to give it a smooth, fine texture of fabric. But the process doesn’t end there. The fabric is laid out for three days to dry and during this time it becomes a red-brown color. Take a look at a video posted by UNESCO to get a glimpse of the labor-intensive process of making bark cloth.

Bagandas wear the well-respected fabric in the style of a toga for special occasions like funerals, ceremonies and coronations. Royal families’ bark cloths are dyed black and/or white and worn in a different style to signify their status. As the fabric continues to grow in popularity, it’s being used for many purposes including upholstery, curtains and bedding. The durability and texture of bark cloth yields endless opportunities for the fashion industry; it may possibly become a permanent alternative to leather.

Help Preserve a Heritage and Culture

With the introduction of cotton and modern conveniences, there’s been a decline in demand for bark cloth in Baganda communities. Nevertheless, we can help preserve this ancient craft by supporting designers whom incorporate the fabric into their looks. In turn we’ll be giving monetary support to organic farmers and their families who grow Mutaba trees and craftsmen who work to create one-of-a-kind bark cloths.

What are some of the coolest ways you’ve seen bark cloth being used? We’d love to hear what you think in the comment section.

Image credit: Screen capture from “Barkcloth Making in Uganda” video

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