North Texas Daily

The bite of bark cloth

The bite of bark cloth

The bite of bark cloth
September 26
15:21 2013

Amalia Ballard / Contributing Writer

Could bark cloth be the answer to a sustainable fabric for the world? Nike and several U.S. government agencies are willing to bet on it.

Several UNT professors are attending the LAUNCH initiative conference on Thursday to focus on transforming the fabric industry, global economics and replenishing the planet’s resources. This initiative could transform the fashion and textile industry, including the fabrics we wear and how they are made.

Bark cloth, a fabric made from Ugandan fig trees, benefits countries hoping to grow in their green initiative and benefits the bark cloth producers in Uganda through rural, environmental and economic growth. The fig trees produce more oxygen in a lifetime than the bark cloth process produces carbon dioxide. It provides jobs to Ugandans and the textile industry and uses less water and energy than typical textiles, said Lesli Robertson UNT fibers professor.

“I feel like I have the opportunity to do more, should do more. I don’t want it to be just my accomplishment,” Robertson said. “The end result is that I can see the people and the impact and I can help.”

Robertson is working with the LAUNCH initiative, a forum promoting a global green movement and innovation sponsored by Nike, NASA, U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of State, said Robert Milnes, dean for the College of Visual Art and Design.

Conference attendees will discuss the final stages of a new venture for renewable and sustainable uses of the bark cloth, said Nandika D’Souza, UNT engineering professor and part of the renewable bioproducts and renewable energy and conservation program.

Bark cloth has been produced in Uganda for generations. Until the mid-19th century it was used for practical, ritual and ceremonial purposes. Cultural and economic changes in Uganda have shifted the focus to more practical uses, while ceremonial uses continue to thrive.

Robertson visited Uganda for the first time in 2005 and saw the bark cloth sitting with other natural Ugandan goods on the side of the road.

“I started asking questions and I was able to see the process of it being made,” Robertson said.

How it works:

The bark of the Mutuba tree is cut horizontally and vertically along the length of the tree and removed with an angled banana stalk. The tree is wrapped in banana leaves to keep it moist and to allow the bark to grow back within a year. Men using 3-to 5-pound mallets beat the bark into a flexible piece of cloth more than four times its original size.

“They were able to strip the tree and it lived,” Robertson said.

As the American push to become a more environmentally friendly country grows, so does the demand for bark cloth as a renewable bio product that could replace synthetic fibers, such as polyester.

Ugandan farmers strip the bark off the fig trees as a source of cloth for clothing. Feature photo courtesy of The Atlantic

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