About Barkcloth

Barkcloth Scraps

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.

According to Joan Kiplinger, vintage fabric expert, barkcloth is technically a type of textured cretonne, which itself is a type of osnaburg. Here she writes:

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.

barkcloth - texture
Barkcloth texture – click and view “all sizes” to get really up close.

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.

barkcloth texture

More info:

- Coololdstuff.com on barkcloth

- One collector’s vintage barkcloth image catalog

- This book, which is written by Margaret Meier, who I met at the International Quilt Festival in 2006.

vintage textured barkcloth book cover

Vintage Textured Barkcloth

Upcoming: Sources for contemporary barkcloth, and it’s barkcloth all week on the Daily Swatch.

12 Comments

  1. daisy janie says:

    Is there a way to automatically add my comments to each day’s posts this week?! :) I will be screaming, “Love it!” to every piece of bark cloth feature!!

  2. Sewer-Sewist says:

    Awesome post, Kim. I’d always wondered about the origins of barkcloth, and what constitutes that particular fabric—since it all looks so different…
    ~Sarah

  3. Mmmm mmmm…Glorious barkcloth!
    That texture just MAKES you want to touch it.
    I’d have a hard time picking any favorites. I love it all!
    Kimberly :)

  4. sewbettie says:

    I love bark cloth!

  5. wow I use so much barkcloth in my work and knew some of this stuff but no way the amount of history and detail you’ve got here, thank you so much I really appreciate being able to find out more.

  6. [...] you’ve ever wondered about what barkcloth is–where the name came from, what it’s made from, how to use it–check out this [...]

  7. [...] see stylish retro fabric, you can always count on barkcloth to look fabulous. Here’s a little history on the [...]

  8. [...] There’s a plethora of sources to choose from, and prices generally range from under $10/yard to $55/yard.+ Look for barkcloth** fabric in cool vintage tropical prints.+ (We especially like Full Swing Textiles‘ prints, which manage to look both vintage and fresh.)+ Curious souls can learn more about barkcloth at True Up (blog) “About Barkcloth”. [...]

  9. Brilliant post, thanks! I’m a fan of barkcloth and have a small, but nice, collection, which you may want to have a look at (www.flickr.com/getsuzy).

    Keep up the great work!!!

    Suzy, miss marmalade

  10. Thanks for the info. Old enough to remember this fabric, but never thought much about its origins. Found a beautiful piece today and will be turning it into a handbag/tote very soon.

  11. Glad to have found True Up. Thanks.

  12. Gill says:

    Original barkcloth is also found in Africa. Its well known in Uganda and comes from a wild fig; its pounded with hard wood mallet to make a stiff felted fabric – used in the past for funeral clothes and grave wrappings – or so I am told.