Thursday, August 13, 2009
Bark Cloth – Sustainable Production in Uganda by Karin Zetterqvist
Bark cloth is a unique, non-woven fabric produced from the bark of Ficus Natalensins, a rare and novel fig tree species peculiar to Uganda and locally known as Mutuba.
Since the 13th century, bark cloth has been produced in the Buganda Kingdom, and used commercially, ritually and ceremonially by the Baganda, an ethnic group found in central Uganda. Ranging in texture from the coarse and thick to the finest and light, bark cloth, as an article of clothing was worn sarong style and wrap-around by Baganda men and women respectively.
The bark cloth was used to pay land rates and fines by the peasants to their chiefs, who in turn selected the best for presentation to the king’s courtiers. Other rituals and ceremonies where bark cloth used to play a central role include the initiation of twins into the clan and their protection, child naming ceremonies, payment of dowry and during marriage ceremonies, succession rituals and last funeral rites to identify the heirs, widows, orphans and so on.
Only the best of the cloth, fine and light to touch, a rich garnet red with a shiny sheen, was presented to the king for use as clothing and during coronations, royal weddings and other functions.
A Masterpiece of Indigenous Textile Production Skills
The art of making bark cloth, passed from father to son, involves stripping the particular fig tree trunk of its bark by ringing down. A straight cut is then made and the bark is then carefully stripped off the tree.
The bark is then steamed, spread out on big logs 2-3 meters long and carefully beaten with mallets. As the bark is beaten it gets wider, longer and finer. A piece of bark measuring 75 by 150 cm can produce cloth measuring up to 4 m by 1.8 m.
The stripped part of the tree is wrapped in layers of fresh banana leaves and with careful nurturing a single tree can produce up to 400 sq m of cloth in a period of about 40 years. In this way it is not only a natural fabric, but also eco-friendly.
African Ethnic Designs
Today the applications, to which bark cloth is put, are endless. Royal Bark Cloth Designs (RBCD) - with the price winning designer Sara Katebalirwe - is working with village community women using bark and other natural fibres specific to Uganda to make various and beautiful novel products. Aesthetic yet functional, the designs are applied mostly by hand.
The design applications, as well as being aesthetic, also give cover to the cloth, to minimize abrasion/friction, thus giving the product a longer life. The best design application so far in terms of bark protection is the raffia couching.
Preserving the Bark Cloth Production Skills
Uganda’s bark cloth was named as part of the world’s collective heritage recognized by UNESCO November 2005. The global body declared the “art of bark cloth making in Uganda a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”
Watatu (meaning three in Swahili) is a web shop, owned by three friends (two Tanzanians and one Swede), where you can find more of the products from Royal Bark Cloth Designs. Promoting the bark cloth and its use internationally will assist to preserve the bark cloth production skills.
"Bark Cloth" by Royal Bark Cloth Designs
Karin wrote another article for this blog on Kanga and Kitenge cloths, traditional fabrics used as garments in Tanzania. She is a member of our Fiber Focus Group. Visit her page.
Find more photos like this on Fiber Focus