Shifting Patterns: Pacific Barkcloth Clothing

Discover a selection of textiles from the Pacific made from barkcloth. Used to wrap, drape and adorn the body in a myriad of styles and designs, these garments demonstrate the long history of barkcloth, and its ongoing relevance today. Based on the British Museum exhibition.

Loincloth from the Hawaiian Islands (1790-1810)British Museum

Shifting patterns: Pacific barkcloth clothing

In the islands of the Pacific, barkcloth is made by beating the inner bark of trees into sheets, which can then be used to make clothing and other things. It is a distinctive art tradition which unites the region, but the patterns which decorate the cloth reflect the diverse histories of individual island groups.

Waist garment from Futuna (1880-1920)British Museum

Designs can be traced back thousands of years, and range from geometric patterns in Fiji, to depictions of spirit-beings in Vanuatu. The arrival of missionaries in the Pacific in the late 1700s had a significant impact on barkcloth design, with Tahitian-style tunics being adopted to cover up the body.

Although worn as everyday clothing, elaborate barkcloth ensembles were and continue to be made for important transitions from one life stage to another. The Elema people of Papua New Guinea wore barkcloth masks for male initiation ceremonies and to communicate with the spirit world. Today, garments such as designer wedding dresses demonstrate the on-going relevance of barkcloth to Pacific Islanders.

Tiputa (tunic) from The Society Islands (1780-1820)British Museum

Barkcloth beater from West Papua (1900/1925)British Museum

In the islands of the Pacific, cloth made from the inner bark of trees is a distinctive art tradition. Probably brought to the region at least 5,000 years ago by some of the first human settlers, its designs reflect the histories of each island group and the creativity of the makers.

Printing board from Fiji (1890)British Museum

Barkcloth is generally made and decorated by women, but garments intended for ritual purposes may be made by men.

Santa Cruz Garment (1920)British Museum

Solomon Islands

Each cluster of islands in the Solomons group has a particular style of barkcloth, considered an important part of local cultural heritage. In certain communities, there is a renewed interest in barkcloth-making, after the introduction of cotton cloth caused an initial decline in production.

Decorated cloths like this were used until the 1930s for men’s abe headdresses in the Santa Cruz islands. The cloth could be wrapped around a framework to create a tall cylinder. Western-style brimmed hats replaced abe as wear for senior men, but traditional headdresses are now being made again.

Solomon Islands Skirt (1890-1908)British Museum

Cloths like this were used to convey local knowledge and customs. The serpentine design on this cloth was described by Solomon Islander Reuben Lilo as related to the highs and lows of life, particularly sickness and death. The dots represent resting places on a journey through mountainous terrain.

Although the barkcloth itself was made by women, only men could paint the images, known collectively as kineha.

In the New Georgia group on the island of Isabel, designs of birds, sharks and dugongs were painted with indigo onto white barkcloth to represent symbolic themes and stories.

Barkcloth strip from Fiji (1860/1865)British Museum


In Western Polynesia barkcloth has great significance as a form of textile wealth, valued as a material made by women. Fijian barkcloth is made in many sizes for different purposes. When presented as ceremonial gifts, long cloths up to 60 metres can be carried by lines of men and women towards the honoured guests. Loincloths were the main garment worn by men before Christianity became widespread in the mid-1800s, after which cloth wraps worn to the knee were adopted. Men and women now wear barkcloth wrapped around their bodies on ceremonial occasions such as weddings.

Fijian barkcloth, 'masi bolabola' (1890/1895)British Museum

For Fijian chiefs, wearing barkcloth masi was a magnificent show of status. Long, narrow cloths like these were often wrapped or looped around the body in such a way that the whole garment could be released with one flourish, and then presented to visitors at a ceremonial occasion.

A decorated cloth like this would have been presented of worn as wrapping for special occasions. Barkcloth garments enhanced the visual impact of warriors, who paraded in their finery at ceremonies and before their opponents.

Bold black and white designs using triangles and lozenge shapes are characteristic of barkcloth made in the Cakaudrove province, which includes the island of Taveuni and the southeastern coast of Vanua Levu.

Barkcloth strip from Fiji (1860/1865)British Museum

Red is an appropriate colour for chiefly garments, as it is associated with the divine power of gods, which chiefs also possess. Discrete zones of red patterning are often kept separate from black and white areas on Fijian cloth.

This cloth has been decorated by rubbing over a pattern tablet, a technique brought to eastern areas of Fiji by Tongan settlers.

Barkcloth from Efate (1875-1898)British Museum


Vanuatu is an archipelago of about 80 islands in the western Pacific. It is the most linguistically diverse region of the world, where people speak 110 different languages. The painted patterns on barkcloth communicate aspects of clan identity and history. In Vanuatu people make mostly plaited textiles from pandanus leaf. The two principal areas where barkcloth is made are Ifira (a Polynesian settlement off Efate island) and Erromango island, each making a highly distinctive style of barkcloth.

As a valuable trade item this finely decorated barkcloth was used within ceremonial exchanges, such as marriage payments and chiefly rituals. It is painted with turmeric, red and brown clay pigments, and sealed with black pigment mixed from ash, giving it a shiny varnished appearance. The fringe of feathers and imported red cloth enhances its value further.
The band of painted geometric decoration along the border is similar to barkcloth designs from neighbouring Polynesian islands from which this community had presumably migrated.

Bridal apron from the Admiralty Islands, Papua New Guinea (1875/1925)British Museum

Papua New Guinea

In Papua New Guinea, the initiation of young men was a major focus of ceremonial life. Initiates achieved the right to certain knowledge, to participate in ritual activities, and to wear particular garments. Ancestors and spirits were frequently represented on house facades, war shields and pottery vessels by people living along the Sepik River in northern Papua New Guinea. These sacred decorations were also applied to barkcloth loincloths in coastal societies at the river mouth.

Dance aprons made from breadfruit bark are reserved for ceremonial occasions in Manus, Papua New Guinea. They are popular with brides, who wear them in pairs, one to the front and one to the back, secured with belts at the waist. Patterned with rows of intricate seed and shell pendants, these are lively garments designed to move with the body of the dancer.

This apron is made from ‘tubular’ cloth, which naturally has two layers. The finely worked, white snail shell discs, which form the pendants, were once a form of currency, provided by the groom’s family for marriage ceremonies. The bride’s clothing and ornaments incorporated these discs, reflecting all of her new social relationships. Today, both cotton and barkcloth aprons are worn, and colourful glass beads have replaced snail shell discs.

Asimano'e Soru'e Skirt (2012)British Museum

Asimano’e Soru’e
(Men’s Ancestral Tattoo Designs)
By Sarah Ugibari.

The Ömie people are a small group living on the southern slopes of the volcano Huvaemo. This cloth was made in 2012 by one of the oldest Ömie women, Sarah Ugbari, and is a representation of her husband’s tattoos. The main diamond design, vinohu’e, represents the fruit of the sih’e tree, which was formerly tattooed around the navel.

For the Ömie, barkcloth increased in symbolic significance in the mid-twentieth century, when tattooing designs began to be applied to cloths, following a ban on tattooing enforced by the first missionaries.

Mount Lamington Skirt (2013)British Museum

Nuni’e (Design of the Eye)
By Fate Savari.

Pacific barkcloth designs are often divided into zones, separated by a border of lines and small motifs. The Ömie describe these borders as orriseegé, or pathways, and apply them first in black pigment. On this cloth, the space between is filled with the design known as nuni’e. It consists of repeating lines, with curling ends, representing eyes. The tiny spots mimic the markings of a caterpillar. Cloths like these are worn by women as a wrap-around skirt.

Loincloth from the Sepik region, Papua New Guinea (1900s)British Museum

Only high status, initiated men knew the identity of the figures and the meaning of the designs displayed publicly on their clothing. Such knowledge was only revealed within the confines of the men’s communal house, which women and uninitiated men were forbidden to enter.

The dynamism of the designs is intended to not only have a visual impact, but to enliven the supernatural beings present in painted form.

Feather headdress, 1800-1825, From the collection of: British Museum
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Barkcloth was associated with the divine power of the gods in eastern Polynesia, where abstract god images might be covered or wrapped in barkcloth. Items of adornment often combined materials and colours connected with gods and ancestors, magnifying the status of the wearer. This headdress combines tail feathers from the tropic bird with black barkcloth, both potent elements of wrapped god images from the Cook Islands. As part of a headdress for festive occasions, these materials would have contributed to a singularly impressive costume.

Cap from Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea, 1910-1918, From the collection of: British Museum
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Padded caps such as this are made from multiple layers of barkcloth, painted with dazzling repeating patterns and embellished with fur pom-poms, and delicate feather ornaments.
It has been suggested that they were worn by warriors, while other accounts say they were worn by widows in mourning. In the early twentieth century, the Wampar people were known for carrying out frequent raids on neighbouring groups living along the Markham River in northern Papua New Guinea.

Kovave mask from the Papuan Gulf, Papua New Guinea (1880)British Museum

Barkcloth is usually produced by women, but cloth for ritual purposes may be made by men. In the coastal and island societies of Papua New Guinea, initiated men traditionally created spectacular masks using barkcloth, as part of rituals to mediate with spirit-beings living in the surrounding landscape. Made in secret, the masks were revealed as the dancers wearing them emerged into the village.

Kovave mask

Kovave masks were formerly worn by make initiates of the Elema people, who live in the Gulf region of Papua New Guinea. The mask-maker would call out to the spirits of the bush, the kovave, as he cut the cane for the basketry frame. After being covered with stretched barkcloth, the features of specific spirits were carefully created with split cane, ochre and charcoal pigments, encouraging the kovave to temporarily inhabit the masks.

Loincloth from the Hawaiian Islands (1790/1810)British Museum


In the northern Polynesian islands of Hawaii, the goddesses Lauhuki and La’ahana watched over the women who beat and decorated barkcloth, and were in turn worshipped by them.

This garment is made of a special type of ribbed cloth known as kua’ula, which was used for men’s loincloths in the late 1700s. Bold, angular designs characterise Hawaiian barkcloth from this period. The zigzag motif symbolises the spine, a sacred part of the body in eastern Polynesia because of its associations with ancestors and genealogy.

Barkcloth from Tonga (1940-1960)British Museum


In Tonga, barkcloth is decorated with images of the Tongan monarchy, historical events and introduced technologies, such as bicycles and aeroplanes. Tonga is one of the largest producers of barkcloth in the Pacific today. Sheets of cloth are printed by groups of women working with design tablets made of lead strips. At life cycle events and royal occasions such as coronations, barkcloth is worn as clothing, piles of cloth are presented as gifts, and a single cloth of extraordinary length may for a pathway for important guests.

During World War II, Queen Sālote (reigned 1918-65) of Tonga personally sponsored the purchase of spitfires for the Allied war effort, as a demonstration of loyalty to the British Crown.

Each aeroplane bearing the Queen’s name is painted on a rubbed pattern of concentric diamonds, as seen in the bindings securing the roof beams of the monarch’s house. The surrounding squares with crossed lines are a motif named manulua, related to the intermarriage of chiefly lineages which underpin the right to rule.

Barkcloth from Samoa (1800-1900)British Museum

Decorating techniques

Some of the main techniques used to decorate barkcloth are described here with examples from this exhibition.

Loincloth from the Hawaiian Islands (1790/1810)British Museum


Beaters carved with lines and patterns, or other tools are used to leave an impression on the cloth.

Solomon Islands Skirt (1890-1908)British Museum


Cloths are immersed in dye, or dye is rubbed or painted onto the surface of the cloth.

Waist garment from Wallis and Futuna (1930-1935)British Museum

Rubbing and overpainting

Pattern tablets are placed under the cloth, and then pigment is rubbed over the surface to bring out the designs. Sometimes the designs are then outlined with paint.

Asimano'e Soru'e Skirt (2012)British Museum

Free-hand painting

Pigments and paints are applied directly to the surface of the cloth.

Tiputa (tunic) from Niue (1840/1860)British Museum


Sections of the cloth are cut to create perforations, serrated edges and fringes.

Barkcloth from Samoa (1800-1900)British Museum

Glazing and oiling

The cloth is given a shiny finish and the pigments are sealed with coatings such as resin or oil.

Barkcloth from Efate (1875-1898)British Museum


Feathers, seeds, shells and other materials are stitched to the cloth as single elements or in bunches or rows.

Credits: Story

Based on an exhibition at the British Museum curated by Natasha McKinney

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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