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Bark Cloth (kiyombo)

The Oldest Cloth in the History of Mankind

In some regions like South Africa or East Africa the tradition of weaving was less developed and in many places not existent. Here, primarily leather and bark cloth were used.

Bark cloth is manufactured in Africa but also in many other parts of the world, e.g. in Canada, Oceania und South America. In Africa, the bark of the East African fig (Ficus natalensis, Natal fig) is used, a tree common to northeastern South Africa, Uganda and Kenya.

The bark of the tree regrows permanently and is harvested every year without harming the tree. Such a "mutuba" tree can provide raw material up to 40 years. Only fig trees with few ramifications can be used to produce homogenous bark cloth. After the peeling of the bark the tree is covered up to its crown with banana leaves to prevent desiccation. The bark regrows within one year.

It is processed by beating with a round mallet. The bark is beaten up to five times, soaked in hot water, dried and beaten again. This repeated process produces a cloth which gradually becomes larger, softer and thinner.

Bark cloth from Uganda is regarded as the oldest textile of mankind. The manufacturing of bark cloth was added to the World Heritage List of Intangible Cultural Properties in 2008.

The Arabic and British colonization and the import of Indian cotton pushed bark cloth production into the background. When the missionaries from St. Ottilien arrived in East Africa in the 1890s the bark cloth had almost vanished. It was only used to manufacture transportation bags for goods. Instead, machine-woven cotton cloth with vibrant colors and patterns (kanga) became popular.