Barkcloth is a traditional vintage fabric that every fashion enthusiast should know about. It’s been developed and used to make bedding and clothing for centuries.
What is barkcloth? Barkcloth is a type of non-woven cellulosic fabric made from the bark of a tree or other plant material grown in tropical regions. The process of making barkcloth is similar to that of felting. The difference is that while the bond in felt is mechanical, the bonding process in bark cloth is chemical.
In this article, we will introduce you to this amazing fabric and how you can use it in your next sewing project.
What Is Barkcloth?
The term barkcloth refers to the natural characteristics of the fabric. In the Pacific Islands and South East Asia, barkcloth was made from the inner bark of certain trees, but the name doesn’t usually indicate the fiber content of the fabric.
During their exploration of the Pacific Islands, Hawaiians were known to utilize paper mulberry (also called ‘wauke’) to make barkcloth. In addition to paper mulberry, other plants have additionally been used to make bark cloth.
To make barkcloth, the tree’s inner bark is separated and then placed in seawater, which causes them to break down and form a sticky substance. Then, this substance is spread on a carved flat surface and beaten with a wooden tool to make it even a thinner and wider material.
After it’s dry, the result is a thin, paper-like fabric that still has the bumpy textures of the tree fibers.
The process of making barkcloth is a communal activity that was quite popular in Hawaii. In addition, this process was also refined in other areas of Polynesia, as well as Uganda and Japan.
Barkcloth fabrics are usually dyed, printed, or painted to make colorful patterns and prints. During the 1940s, the exotic designs of barkcloth fabrics caught the attention of American GIs stationed in Hawaii. These fabrics became quite trendy, and this was how Hawaiian shirts became popular.
For more information on the roots of traditional barkcloth making, take a look at this documentary from Great Big Story on YouTube.
The original barkcloth effect was replicated by an industrial production process using a heavy Momie weave. So, although traditional barkcloth is a non-woven fabric, what we consider vintage barkcloth today is a medium/heavy woven fabric.
This modern version of barkcloth is typically made from cotton (take a look at this modern cotton barkcloth fabric on Amazon) and features a very dense weave, which makes it easier to sew with a sewing machine. It doesn’t have the same paper-like appearance as traditional barkcloth, but it’s much easier to work with.
Throughout the 1940s to 1960s, barkcloth was used in various interior textiles, such as upholstery and curtains. Some countries, such as Australia, continued to produce barkcloth well into the 1970s.
Lighter-weight barkcloths were used to make clothing during the 1950s. During this period, the barkcloth print designs started to change along with popular imagery. Some of these included designs featuring subtler colors and simpler designs.
You can find vintage barkcloth in a lot of thrift stores and online stores that sell fashion and home decor from this era. Thanks to its popularity among modern fashion designers, you can also find it in some fabric stores and craft stores as well.
How To Identify Barkcloth
Traditional barkcloth is literally made from tree bark, hence the name. You can easily identify this fabric because of its very textured appearance. It’s also a non-woven fabric, so the cellulose fibers won’t appear in any particular pattern.
However, the chance of you finding traditional barkcloth in a fabric store is very rare, partly because the process of making this fabric is now very industrialized and modernized. Traditional non-woven barkcloth is now only found in museums and some areas of the world that still practice this craft.
The modern version of barkcloth refers to a thick, tightly woven fabric that has uneven weft and warp threads to recreate the uneven textures of barkcloth. To identify this version of barkcloth, you can just run your hands over the fabric to feel its pronounced textures.
Modern barkcloth is made from cotton, although you can certainly find variations made from linen, rayon, and even polyester. Regardless of the fiber content, barkcloth is usually highly durable yet still has a very nice drape and softness that makes it suitable for upholstery and curtains.
Uses Of Barkcloth
Barkcloth is an incredibly versatile fabric that has many uses. Thanks to its softness and durability, both the traditional barkcloth and modern barkcloth are suitable for making bedding, upholstery, curtains, and clothing.
In many cultures, traditional non-woven barkcloths were used as bedding materials, as well as clothing and even ceremonial objects. Clothing items and ceremonial objects made from traditional barkcloth even have many decorative touches, including pleats and even prints.
However, traditional barkcloth is not suitable for making modern clothing because it can break down when it’s wet. It’s also quite labor-intensive to make.
Woven barkcloth made from cotton can improve the material’s durability, which makes it more suitable for modern applications, like bedding, curtains, upholstery, as well as clothing.
How To Work With Barkcloth
Sewing with woven barkcloth is no different from sewing with any other woven fabric. However, there are some characteristics of barkcloth that can make it difficult to sew, so here are some tips to make the process seamless.
Since barkcloth is mostly made from cotton or other natural fibers that are prone to shrinking, the first thing you need to do after purchasing a piece of barkcloth is to wash it!
This first step will help you get any shrinkage out of the way, which will make the final garment fit better because it won’t shrink further in the wash.
Plan Your Pattern
The tricky thing about working with any kind of vintage fabric is that the quantity is usually limited, which means if you run out of fabric mid-project, you won’t be able to get more.
That’s why we suggest cutting your pattern using pattern paper first and laying all the pattern pieces on top of your fabric to see if you have enough. That way, you can plan ahead and adjust your pattern accordingly, especially if your fabric is limited.
Since modern barkcloth is a woven fabric, the edges are quite prone to unraveling after you cut it. That’s why we recommend serging all the edges of your pattern pieces after cutting the fabric so that your pattern pieces aren’t slowly eaten away as the weave unravels.
If you don’t have a serger, you can also use the zigzag stitch in your sewing machine to seal off the edges, which will help you achieve the same effect.
Additionally, if you want to avoid serging the raw edges, you can also use a flat-felled seam or bias tape to secure the edges so that it doesn’t unravel easily.
Adjust Your Sewing Machine
Barkcloth is a medium-weight fabric that is a bit thicker, so if you’re using a sewing machine, you’ll have to adjust the machine accordingly.
That means using a thicker needle, heavier sewing threads, and longer stitch lengths. If you are sewing multiple layers together, you can also switch to a walking foot to make it easier to feed the thick fabric through the machine.
As we’ve mentioned, woven barkcloth is very prone to unraveling, so not every type of seam will work with this type of fabric. There are two types of seams that will work with barkcloth: a flat-felled seam or using bias tape.
A flat-felled seam is what you often see on denim clothing or jackets. It’s an enclosed seam that is secured using two lines of straight stitches to create a durable and highly visible seam. This seam secures the edges so that there’s no chance of the fabric unraveling.
The seam is first sewn with the two pieces of barkcloth wrong sides together (the seam facing the right side). Then, one edge of the seam is enclosed in the other, either using pins or using an iron.
After that, you can sew two lines of straight stitches along the length of the seam to secure it.
Here’s a helpful video on flat-felled seam:
If you have a hem instead of a seam, you can also use bias tape to secure it. Bias tape will make the hem clean and nice, and it will also secure all your edges in an enclosed area (the bias tape) so that the edges won’t unravel.
To hem your barkcloth using bias tape, you can first sew the tape and the barkcloth right sides together. Then, fold the bias tape inwards so that the tape and the barkcloth are wrong sides together, and do another row of straight stitches to secure the bias tape in place.
Here’s a more detailed tutorial:
Both of these methods will ensure that the edges of the barkcloth are secured inside the stitches so that the seam or hem finishes are more durable, and the barkcloth won’t unravel even in the wash or after repeated use.