The Craftsmanship of Making Bark Cloth
Although bark cloth is not necessarily an art form, we felt that the craftsmanship it takes to make the cloth was worthy of being in our art installments for our blog story. Making bark cloth is an ancient craft traditionally done and worn by the Buganda people in South Uganda. For over 600 years the cloth has been made to make clothes for both the royal family and the common man alike.
The inner bark of the Mutuba tree is taken off during the winter season. After it goes through the harvest process it then goes through a long process of beating with different types of hammers to create a texture that is soft, fine, an earthy brown color, and a earthy smell to match. The tree’s bark can be harvested multiple years if taken care of properly. Bark cloth is worn by men and women like a toga. While most bark cloth is brown in color, for royalty the color is dyed white or black and worn in a different fashion to signify their social status.
Bark cloth was traditionally used for clothes for ceremonies, coronations, and most commonly, funerals. What used to be a more common material for clothing in decades past in Uganda has given in to western materials like cotton that were introduced in the 1800s by Arab traders. Bark cloth is still widely used for funeral purposes, but because of that the material has gotten a bad reputation from the younger generation who only associate it with death. This saddens us, because bark cloth has a long history of craftsmanship in Uganda. Every village had its own workshop and families in the village that owned these workshops passed down their trade down for generations to come.
You could always tell a bark cloth maker’s son from the crowd, because they wore a necklace with two tiny mallets hanging from it. This served as a reminder to them that if they mess up, they may have to make bark cloth with those two very small mallets.
Making bark cloth was banned for some time and only recently revived in the late 1990’s. In recent years, trend setting college age students have become interested in the craftsmanship, heritage, and wearing of bark cloth. Many fashion designers like Gloria Wavamunni have expressed interest in the cloth and are trying to get rid of it’s association and make it a fashion statement instead. She says that, “it’s rough texture gives it character.” We hope that designers like Gloria and trend setting college students continue to use this traditional material and craft for modern day fashion, but it has a long way to become the beloved profession it once was.