The Baganda, ancestral makers of bark cloth in Uganda
Published 25 July 2015 by Caroline Grellier
How an ancestral know-how of bark cloth production became an international eco-fashion company, between Uganda and Germany.
In East Africa, the Baganda, people, living in the south of Uganda, have always been makers although without Arduinos or drones. The local speciality is bark textile, a rustic know-how, preceding the invention of weaving (that is some time ago….), registered with Unesco’s Cultural heritage of humanity.
The making of bark cloth:
The internal bark of the local ficus, the Mutuba, is collected during the rain season, carefully removed from the previously scrubbed trunk that will heal on its own in the space of a year. The bark is soaked then vigorously beaten for hours with different wooden mallets sculpted with small barbs by the villagers. The aim is to soften the fibre to obtain a thin texture with features similar to leather, a uniform ochre colour and a really smooth surface!
According to custom, the clan craftsmen produced bark cloth (under the direction of the kaboggoza, the hereditary chief of the craftsmen) for the Baganda royal family and the rest of the community. Mainly worn during crowning or healing celebrations and funeral ceremonies, men use it as a toga, women also by adding a belt. It is died in black or white for kings and chiefs.
Very finely beaten, letting light through, bark cloth becomes near transparent and can also be used as a mosquito net, a bed sheet or as bag to preserve food.
Before the advent of cotton fabrics in the 19th century each village of the region had its production workshop-warehouse. Even though production has slowed down, the know-how carries on has peaked the interest of a German company that has been working in collaboration with the makers from Uganda since 1999 with its own brand, Barkcloth.
The design of the fabric has been improved by adding features such as waterproofing or fire resistance to make it more suitable for clothes, upholstery, wall coverings (distributed by Arte International),lampshades and even automotive components. The Germans are currently working on applications of air-conditioner filters or, even more sexy, biodegradable plasters to heal your grazes.
This renewable material, 100% bio-sourced, also inspired the textile designer José Hendo during his 100% bark cloth fashion show in Vancouver this year.
José Hendo’s bark cloth fashion show at the 2015 Vancouver Fashion Week:
To touch bark cloth for real, go to the showroom of Arte International, 6 bis rue de l’Abbaye, 75006 Paris, France.