Shifting Patterns: Pacific Barkcloth-making Explored at British Museum

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Barkcloth dancer skirt

In 2011, Dalani Tanahy created dance costumes for hula groups. The cloth needed strength and flexibility to withstand the energetic movements of the dance. Photograph taken by Frances Spiegel with permission of the British Museum, all rights reserved.

Shifting Patterns: Pacific Barkcloth Clothing is the British Museum’s first-ever exhibition to look at barkcloth making in the islands of the Pacific.

The display brings together over seventy objects sourced from the museum’s comprehensive Oceania collection of nearly one thousand items including garments, headdresses, masks and body ornaments.

Items acquired during British expeditions to the Pacific Ocean in the 18th century as well as garments created in the 21st century are on show including a stunning skirt made from Hawaiian kapa (barkcloth).

In 2011, designer Dalani Tanahy created dance costumes for hula groups. The cloth required strength and flexibility to withstand the energetic movements of the dance. The skirt demonstrates the creativity of the artist and the continued popularity of barkcloth making in the Hawaiian Islands.

Pacific Barkcloth Clothing – An Ancient Tradition

Introduced to the islands of the Pacific some 5,000 years ago by early human settlers, barkcloth – made from the inner bark of trees – is a very distinctive art form.


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Barkcloth is found in the region from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the east to New Guinea in the west. The cloth is often beautifully decorated in a variety of patterns and styles. These designs tell the stories of each island group and highlights the skills and creativity of the makers.

There were few animals on the Pacific islands that could be used as a source of skin and fur, so plant-based textiles, such as barkcloth and plaited leaf fabrics, were very important.

Barkcloth is mainly made from the paper mulberry tree, first introduced to the Pacific islands by early settlers. The basic method is more or less the same across all the islands.

Garments for Everyday Wear and Ceremonial Use

Samoa Wedding Dress

Custom-made Wedding Dress, Samoa, New Zealand, 2014, by Samoan designer Paula Chan Cheuk. Chan Cheuk creates patterns with plaited coconut fibre and Samoan brides eagerly seek out her designs. Photograph taken by Frances Spiegel with permission of the British Museum, all rights reserved.

Islanders wear barkcloth clothing as everyday items, but these garments are also linked to ceremonial occasions including life cycle events such as weddings and funerals. Shifting Patterns features a beautiful wedding dress, designed in 2014 by New Zealand-based Samoan Paula Chan Cheuk.

Chan Cheuk’s unique custom-made wedding dresses were first seen in the 1990s. This particular design combines siapo (Samoan barkcloth) with sections of plaited fine matting. Both textiles are highly prized. The plaited coconut fibre cordage is a completely original element of Chan Cheuk’s designs.

These are highly sought after by brides looking for a distinctively Samoan wedding outfit. The gown was specially commissioned by the British Museum with sponsorship from New Zealand Society U.K. and donations by private individuals.

A Rich Diversity of Patterns and Styles Across the Islands

The rich diversity of patterns and styles across the islands is extraordinary. Some are quite plain, while others have textured or applied patterns. Artists stencil, dye or paint patterns, specific to each community, onto the cloth.

The pattern tells us about the group identity of the wearer as well as about the individual himself.

Styles Changed with the Coming of Christianity

As societies progressed and changed, so did the form and meaning of barkcloth. With conversion to Christianity in the early 19th century, many islanders adopted new types of clothing.

The exhibition features several poncho-style garments known as tiputa. Christian missionaries encouraged converts to wear these garments because they covered the upper body. The new styles led to new decorative devices such as painted motifs, fringes and cut-out designs.

But the biggest change came with the introduction to the Pacific of machine-made cloth which in some places has led to a sharp decline in barkcloth making.

Beyond the islands, in diaspora communities in urban centres such as Auckland, New Zealand, barkcloth making continues, and indeed is often used for high fashion designs inspired by both indigenous traditions and western styles.

A Decoded Interview with Curator Natasha KcKinney

Natasha McKinney is a Curator in the Oceania Section of the British Museum, in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.

Natasha spoke exclusively to Decoded Past about this exhibit:

Decoded Past: What were your criteria for including some items and not others?

Natasha McKinney: It was a combination of things. We’re trying to show the full range of the materials and the diversity of the patterns. We’re trying to represent all the barkcloth-producing groups in the Pacific. That was quite challenging in this relatively modest space.

We also took into consideration the condition of the cloths themselves and how much conservation work was needed to be able to put it on display. We had our conservators working in the conservation studios in the new building for the past six months. But also we needed to show cloths that spoke to particular themes, that were important to each of these locations and told their stories through the various motifs.

Decoded Past: During preparation and conservation for the exhibition did you discover anything that really surprised you?

Hawaiian Cloth on show at British Museum

Hawaiian cloth with a ribbed texture. Beaters carved with lines and patterns and other tools are used to leave an impression on the cloth. Photograph taken by Frances Spiegel with permission of the British Museum, all rights reserved.

Natasha McKinney: Yes, quite a number of things. One example would be the two red Hawaiian cloths. These are a particular type of cloth made in the late 1700s. To be able to see them up close meant we could appreciate the real texture which is characteristic of that particular time.

When you turn them over you can see they’ve been stitched together with barkcloth and thread. We had those analysed. They are made of two quite unusual species. One of them is hibiscus, so not your typical paper mulberry. They also showed a high level of protein on the surface.

I found one reference that suggests spiders and hens eggs were used as a coating on Hawaiian cloths so this high level of protein may relate to that practise. This was an intriguing and unusual discovery. It was a way of sealing the colours. You can see how wonderfully those colours have kept.

Decoded Past: After the bark is stripped from the trees, does the bark renew itself or does it destroy the tree?

Natasha McKinney: It does destroy the tree, but the paper mulberry is cultivated and grows quite quickly. It needs about a year to mature. Other plants can be used, like banyan or breadfruit, trees that are widely available.

Decoded Past: How was the cloth actually made?

Natasha McKinney: They cut the bark from the tree and separate out the white inner bark. The bark is softened in water and beaten to spread the fibres. A range of beaters is used, sometimes two or three beaters for the whole process. This leaves an impression on the cloth as well so you have a beautiful pattern before you even begin.

Tiputa, Niue,

A Niuean tunic with serrated edges and fringes. By the 1880s, barkcloth making was flourishing in Niue. Motifs typical of the region included stars, fish, human figures and written text. Photograph taken by Frances Spiegel with permission of the British Museum, all rights reserved.

Decoded Past: Do you have a favourite item and why?

Natasha McKinney: Probably the tunic from the west Polynesian island of Nieu. It has serrated fringes and botanical motifs, which had not been seen on the island before the mid-19th century.

Shifting Patterns: Pacific Barkcloth Clothing at the British Museum

These garments, cloths and adornments tell us how patterns and styles differ from island to island, and how these patterns and styles change with societal changes on the islands. Shifting Patterns: Pacific Barkcloth Clothing is a free exhibition on show at the British Museum until 16th August 2015.

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© Copyright 2015 Frances Spiegel, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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