bark cloth, primitive fabric made in tropical and subtropical countries from the soft inner bark of certain trees. It has been made and used in parts of Africa and India, the Malay Peninsula, Samoa, the Hawaiian Islands, and the Fiji Islands and perhaps reached its highest perfection in Polynesia and parts of Central America. Lengths of branches or of young stems are cut from trees, such as the fig, the breadfruit, or the paper mulberry. The outer bark is removed; the inner bark is cut in narrow strips and then alternately soaked and beaten with a grooved or carved wooden mallet, or beetle, until the fibers are well matted and become thin and flexible. Gum is sometimes added, and pieces may be joined and beaten together to form large sheets. The peeling and beetling are usually done by the men; the decorating, by the women. Patterns, often elaborate, may be sketched or may be applied by block printing or by leaves dipped in dye and pressed on the cloth. The cloth may be gummed or oiled to make it waterproof. Tapa cloth is a fine variety made in the Pacific islands. Bark cloth is used for loincloths, skirts, draperies, and wall hangings; in thick layers it makes an excellent bed. So ancient is the art of making the cloth that it is deeply involved in religious and ceremonial life. In Borneo a strip of the cloth signifies mourning. In Malawi it has traditionally formed the initiation dress of girls. In India some sects prescribe bark cloth as the dress of a religious recluse.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.