Monday, September 28, 2009

What's that About? Barkcloth Fabric

The world of vintage clothing is full of mysteries, even to me.

One question that's been hovering in the back of my mind for some time is "what exactly is barkcloth, anyway?"

I'm not enough of a fan of retro Hawaiian styles to have learned the old fashioned way (shopping for it), which means Wikipedia had to come to the rescue. Here, in a [coco]nutshell, is what I learned . . .

The original bark cloth (in some places known as tapa) was made from the inner lining of the barks of assorted trees native to the Polynesian and Oceanic islands. People would strip the bark, soak it, pound it, sometimes add a gluey agent to improve the texture. The resulting broad, flat strips were flexible enough to use as a highly-prized fabric, and were usually painted with geometric and other decorative motifs.

Bark had its problems as a material, but also advantages over other alternatives: Wiki helpfully explains:
The major problem with tapa clothing is that the tissue is just like paper: it loses all its strength when wet and falls apart. Still it was better than grass-skirts, which usually are either heavier and harder or easily blown apart.

Anyway, along came the 1950s and all things Hawaiian became very trendy in the other 49 states. Manufacturers struck on the idea of creating a fabric out of cotton that was thick, soft and textured somewhat like bark. To add to exotic air, they borrowed the term barkcloth from "the sand-girdled isles" of the Pacific (I saw that quote recently and loved it--happy to have a chance to put it to use!). This textile was most frequently used for upholstery, but it also found its way back to the Pacific for use in muu-muus and other "typical" tropical wear.

So today, if you come across a vendor using the term "barkcloth" to describe an item like the skirt above, you can be 99.9% sure that it was not made of the bark of a tree. If you want to be 100% certain, wear it out in a monsoon. If it comes apart, you had the real thing.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this informative blog - I'd never heard of barkcloth before - how curiously fascinating!