Plant artefacts - Clothing & Accessories
Today it is easy to forget just how wide a range of plant fibres was used around the world prior to the industrialisation of the 20th century. Cotton is by far the most important plant fibre today, but at least 300 fibre plant species are represented in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection. Kew holds about 500 items of clothing and textile, as well as 1,500 samples of plant fibres and 500 of dyes.
Barkcloth jacket after conservation. Made from hackberry (Celtis), Nicobar Islands, given by Edward Man in 1881.
Kew’s Economic Botany Collection is a resource both for studying the fibres themselves – technology, identification, use – and their place in local cultures and world trade in the period 1850-1930. Many of the artefacts in the collection also cast light on Kew’s work, and on the wider relationships of Britain and the Empire.
Using bark to make clothes
Inner bark is an extremely widely used material ranging from the lime and birch bark of northern and eastern Europe where it was until recently used for cordage and sandals, to the tapa cloth of the Pacific.
Unlike the corky outer bark, the phloem fibres that make up inner bark are soft and, owing to their inter-meshing, immensely strong. The stripping of bark and extraction of the inner bark has to be done by hand, so bark fibres have rarely entered industrial production and are far less well-known than other plant fibres. Both the trees themselves and bark-processing skills are under threat in many areas.
Jackets from around the world
The Victorian reefer jacket displayed at the top of this page was given to Kew by Edward Horace Man (1846-1929), a pioneer anthropologist of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Inkstains and traces of wear suggest this was Man's personal clothing. It is made of the inner bark of a small fruit tree (locally "lanop"; botanical name Celtis) that grows in the Nicobar Islands.
Man represented different facets of the British Empire: on the one hand, an official representative and magistrate; on the other, a critic of attempts to assimilate the native peoples of the Islands. The jacket is both a document of an indigenous culture (barkcloth) and of an encounter with empire (the Victorian official in his reefer jacket) that was to prove disastrous for that culture.
The jacket was originally shown at Kew in heavily folded form. In 2006 it benefited from comprehensive conservation by Konstantinos Chatziantoniou, a student at the Textile Conservation Centre. His work shows how conservation not only helps preserve objects, but also leads to better understanding of their function and historical significance.
This red jacket from India is made from cotton – the fibres of the cotton seed, spun, woven and worked by poor girls who were being taught a trade. The Economic Botany Collection contains many specimens relating to India’s textile industry. The still vibrant colours are from natural dyes - orange-red from turmeric and blue from indigo.
A Maori cloak
Many plant fibres are obtained from leaves, including sisal (Agave sisalana) and New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax).
This Maori cloak is unique in being woven from the leaves of Celmisia, a plant rarely used by Maori weavers. The hanging leaves are practical, draining off rain drops, but are also decorative and reminiscent of the famous feather cloaks of Maori culture. Treated at the Textile Conservation Centre by Luba Dovgan Nurse, in consultation with Maori weavers in London and New Zealand.
A tapa cloth skirt
Possibly made from bark of the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) and dyed with indigo. Tapa cloth is prepared by soaking the bark of trees, removing the inner bark, and then pounding strips together to form long pieces of cloth. Tapa was made throughout the pacific and was both a practical fabric and of great symbolic importance. The dark blue sea creatures are dugongs. Treated at the Textile Conservation Centre by Elizabeth Palacios.
A comb from the Uaupes River
Spruce noted that this comb was worn stuck into the back hair by the Indians on the Uaupes River. The teeth are of the stem of the bacaba palm (Oenocarpus bacaba); they are inserted between two masses of monkey's hair cord, which are encased in slender strips of the stem of a grass (Gynerium). The free ends of the cord hang down the back and are ornamented with parrot feathers.
2. Collection artefacts - Jewellery
3. Botanical jewellery research
4. Fibre, bark and leaves research
5. Bark cloth research
6. Amazonia research - Richard Spruce
7. Collection artefacts - Japan
8. Ancient Egyptian artefacts research
9. Collection artefacts - Amazonas region
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Only recently placed in a genus of its own, the Latin name of this palm honours a Kew botanist and palm expert.