The Economic Botany Collections at Kew house around 40 specimens of bark cloth, a versatile material made from beaten tree bark, once used widely in the Pacific Islands and Indonesia . Bark cloth comes primarily from trees of the Moraceae family, including Broussonetia papyrifera, Artocarpus altilis, and Ficus spp. It is made by beating strips of the fibrous inner bark of these trees into sheets, which are then finished into a variety of items.
The main use of bark cloth is for clothing. The Collections at Kew illustrate the amazing ability of this beaten tree bark to form soft and delicate items of apparel. Examples include shawls, loincloths, headdresses, skirts, dresses, shirts, and even a tight fitting jacket. Bark cloth has not just been worn, however, but has also been used as a wrapping for the deceased, a dowry, a room partition, and a mosquito screen. The cloth has played an important role in the societies of the South Pacific, being incorporated into folklore, religion, culture, and ritual. It has been popular in ritual gift exchange, in everyday trading and in healing ceremonies, and it has been used to symbolise status and wealth, with the level of decoration, the style of wearing, and the amount of cloth worn signifying rank. In Tahiti , for example, the upper class wore the ‘ahutara' or shawl over their shoulders, while the lower classes wore one rectangle tucked around the body and under the arms so the shoulders were exposed to passing superiors. Meanwhile, in Fiji the length of a man's loincloth symbolised his rank. A chief's loincloth would drag on the ground, while a poor man's loincloth would drape over his belt as little as possible.
Each region in the Pacific developed its own unique methods of production, style of wearing and design. The Economic Botany Collections at Kew have examples from a wide geographical range, including Pitcairn, Hawaii, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Futuna, Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Sulawesi, Halamahera, Seram, New Guinea, and Java. The samples cover the many diverse uses, designs and styles of bark cloth, and are the result of a number of private collectors and colonial expeditions in the 19th century, from HRH the Duke of Edinburgh to the mutineers of the HMS Bounty. Most of the examples at Kew date from the late 19th century. The production of bark cloth slowed considerably in the 20th century, eventually dying out in all but a few islands as missionaries from the west visited the Pacific, bringing with them western ideas and goods such as cotton textiles. In fact, it became a sign of a convert to wear cotton, rather than bark cloth.
With the manufacture of bark cloth in such decline, the Collections at Kew serve as an important reminder of this unique craft. The specimens kept here will provide present and future generations with a chance to see samples of the beautifully crafted cloth, and an opportunity to learn about the societies who once used bark cloth in nearly every aspect of their lives, from clothing their children and adorning their priests to healing their sick and wrapping their dead.