Barkcloth is a type of cotton (sometimes with rayon or linen content) with a special weave that gives it a nubby texture reminiscent of tree bark. It is defined by that texture rather than by weight, fiber content, or print. It is typically a medium-to-heavy weight fabric suited best for upholstery, drapes, and other home decor. (Hint: if you’re searching for vintage barkcloth fabric on eBay, don’t neglect the search terms “drapes” and “curtains.”
If you’ve seen The Hours, you might remember Julianne Moore’s home (with lots of barkcloth) and fabulous robe (which may have been barkcloth). Frankly I had a hard time understanding why she was so depressed, being surrounded by all that loveliness, not to mention having Toni Colette for a pal.
True bark cloth is made without spinning or weaving from the inner bark of certain tropical trees in the South Sea Islands. Bark is soaked, then beaten with a wooden mallet into a paperlike fabric, sometimes as thin as fine muslin and then bleached, dyed, painted or printed. Tapa or kapa [Hawaii] or masi [Fiji] are types of bark cloths used as decorative wall hangings or for clothing as it is strong and cool to wear.
Here is a little history of barkcloth prints, from this eBay forum thread by member roses-in-my-shabby-shed:
The tropical prints popular in the 1930s were a direct result of Art Deco’s linear forms combined with America’s love for floral prints, which have held a monopoly since the beginning of the 20th century. The influence of Hollywood’s lavish set designs also added to the tropical fantasy, and these patterns thrived into the 1940s, providing fun and delight in interior design. Sometimes, the tropical flavor was distilled by the addition of stripes for “mainstream” acceptance. Later on, an almost Folk Art sense was added by the use of scenes ranging from the nautical to Grandma Moses to circuses and the American west.
Going into the 1950s, the natural elements of leaves and feathers were combined with geometric forms. The clean lines of the new Scandinavian furniture and the world’s new delight in science helped to popularize this. Add the influence of Bauhaus and the prints soon became full-scale “atomic,” now only representative of the earlier nature-inspired designs. Dali, Arp, Calder, and Miro were evident in the dynamic flair of fabrics decorated with boomerangs, flying saucers, and cocktail glasses. And to complete the transformation, silver or gold “Lurex” thread was often added to the fabric. The florals of the turn of the century had now completely disappeared.
Barkcloth faded from the interior design scene in the 1960s, but the recent interest in mid-century design has saved it from extinction. The prints add a feeling of optimism and nostalgia to the contemporary home, and have become highly collectible.
- Coololdstuff.com on barkcloth
- One collector’s vintage barkcloth image catalog
Upcoming: Sources for contemporary barkcloth, and it’s barkcloth all week on the Daily Swatch.