Monday 9 January 2012


Barkcloth is used extensively in the construction of the Tahitian Mourner’s costume.  It is a fexible, cloth-like material made from the inner bark of several types of tree.  Tapa has become a generic name for barkcloth, although on Tahiti it was known as ahu.

Beater marks on barkcloth
The bark of the paper mulberry or the breadfruit tree was collected, then soaked in water for several days until the outer bark could be removed.  The inner bark was wrapped in leaves and left to ferment for a few days, before it was beaten into barkcloth.  Barkcloth beaters were generally square in section, and each side had grooves carved in it of various thicknesses.  Beating started with the coarsest side, and the side with the finest grooves was used to give a fine finish to the cloth.  Beater marks are often visible in the surface of barkcloth.  Thicker cloth was made by ‘felting’ thinner layers together.

Cape from Mourner's costume (1886.1.1637 .6)

Much of the barkcloth used in the Mourner’s costume is coloured, and was either dyed or painted.  The dyes are usually plant based, and red, yellow, brown and black were all commonly produced. 

At the Pitt Rivers, we have two Mourner’s costume headdresses.  Both have barkcloth capes.  The cape of the headdress currently associated with the rest of the costume has stripes of red, yellow and black barkcloth, while the other headdress is striped with brown barkcloth, and a decorated barkcloth which has resin applied on the surface in a pattern of dots.

Detail of barkcloth from second headdress, 1886.1.1637 .9

Barkcloth strips and core of plaited hair

Very large pieces of barkcloth are used to make the ‘ponchos’ which make up the bottom layers of the costume, but barkcloth is also used in other ways, for example twisted to form a cord for tying up the bindings used for the headdress. Barkcloth is also used in the bindings of the headdress as narrow strips wound around a core of finely plaited human hair.