THREADED: Wearable Woods – From Forests Into Fashionable Fabrics

Column“Best regards and please continue to bark up the right tree.”

These were the closing words of wisdom I received from Oliver Heintz, founder and managing director behind BARK CLOTH®. His email salutation is potentially playful or maybe meant to leave a mark on your memory. Regardless, through this signature, I was inevitably inspired to trek deeper into deconstructing the fibers of the forest, to uncover the origins of two sustainable materials in particular: bark cloth and Lenzing’s tencel.


Derived from the Mutuba tree (wild common fig), Heintz’s BARK CLOTH® is the pioneer in developing fabric from this wood-based material; they have been cooperating with small-scale organic farmers in Uganda since 1999. Traditionally, bark cloth is manufactured by the Baganda people; in their process, the inner bark is harvested during the rainy season, and then transformed into a soft fabric by using various wooden hammers. With such an organic creation process, bark cloth can have extensive varying textures and shades of brown.

It may seem perplexing to imagine bark as a material that you could actually wear. But remarkably, the process of stripping bark from trees and removing the soft inner layer to make it into softer, wearable garments – like loincloths and purses – is thought to have been around since 4,000 B.C., where it began in southeastern China. For the Ugandan-Germany family venture BARK CLOTH®, the material’s essence is undeniably distinguished: “Its strong contrast between archaic authenticity and state-of-the-art textile finishing processes generates a convincing effect for nearly unlimited applications.”

In the nineteenth century, bark cloth production slowed with the introduction of cotton cloth by Arab traders. However, the Baganda people have continued to embrace this traditional craft, particularly for their cultural and spiritual functions. UNESCO even named “the art of bark cloth making in Uganda” as a World Cultural Heritage site in 2008.

Bark Cloth – available on Source4Style

With roots of holistic capacities, the source – the Mutuba tree – serves as a significant sustainable resource in East Africa. It is considered one of the most multipurpose plants, especially in areas where intensive banana-coffee lakeshore land use systems are in place. Its roots transfer nutrients from deep soil areas closer to the surface, while its canopy above shades the banana and coffee shrub. Not only does the Mutumba’s presence boost crop yields, but it also serves as construction wood, fast growing firewood, its leaves rot quickly and function as an excellent fertilizer, and it also possesses medicinal properties – tea can be made from its leaves to treat a sore throat, while the tree’s latex is a skin ointment to cover wounds.

A refined, more “finished” variation of bark cloth, BARKTEX® seems to be proving just as multifaceted as its mother tree. Currently, DLR Aerospace Centre is testing it for use in airplane wings, while the company is also cooperating with the Freiburg Rainforest Institute in an effort to develop ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable materials for use in sports equipment and outdoor gear.

Bark cloth belts at Christian Siriano SS11 at NYFW

And, yes – bark cloth has now pounded its way into the high-end fashion sector as well. As one of the earliest members of Source4Style, Christian Siriano discovered the material through their sourcing platform, and designed a collection of belts that were featured in his Spring 2011 Collection at New York Fashion Week. Others have fashioned bark cloth into trench coats, shoes, and mind-blowing gorgeous dresses.

DIY extraordinaire and author of P.S. I Made This, Erica Domesek, recently acquired a bundle of bark cloth.

As she tells EcoSalon, “One of the beauties of what I do is that I’m attracted to materials. It’s kind of like when you buy a really nice dress, and you save it for a special occasion. I’m that way with materials – I hold onto them until I know exactly what I want to do. The bark cloth is definitely not an everyday material – it’s something special.”

We can’t wait to see what fabulous creation Domesek evolves from the wood-ware, when the time is right to let it shine.


TENCEL® is a fiber procured from the wood pulp of eucalyptus trees, and produced by Lenzing, the only fiber producer in the world to possess the European Union Eco-label. So, to chop it down to the basics: excess wood pulp is processed into a thread that can be woven into super-soft tencel fabric.

U.S. Marketing Manager of Lenzing, Tricia Carey tries to break it down for us. Basically, Lenzing purchases FSC-Certified wood pulp, then adds a non-toxic solvent called amine oxide. This solvent goes through a closed loop cycle and then the fiber is extruded through the spinnerettes and cut into specific staple lengths.

Not only is tencel biodegradable, its fibral makeup is innately formatted for comfort. As you can see by the above image, the surface of tencel is smoother and more supple; wool tends to be more scaly, while cotton is irregular and rough in texture.

“Tencel has been commercial for 20 years and in that time the expansion has been amazing. Most recently we have seen more use in activewear garments and denim. Tencel is used at retailers like J. Crew, Banana Republic, Gap, Nordstrom, Victoria’s Secret, Ann Taylor, Club Monaco, Target, J. Jill, Macy’s and more,” Carey tells EcoSalon.

J.Crew Tencel Shirt

As cotton production becomes more difficult to keep up with due to population increases, economics, water waste, and inconsistent climate shifts, man made cellulosic fibers (MMCF) may be the fabrics of the future.

Carey tells EcoSalon, “We can clearly see the demands on the earth will continue to increase as the global population continues to grow.  Land will be needed for food crops and water for drinking. There is a ‘Cellulosic Gap’ where there will be a demand for more regenerated cellulosic fibers, like viscose, modal and TENCEL®.”

So, what does the future of fashionable fabrics hold for us? And, will cotton no longer be the fabric of our lives?


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Image: Raymond Meier

Kestrel Jenkins

Kestrel Lee Jenkins currently resides in New York City where she writes a weekly column covering the sustainable fashion world.