Barkcloth: The Quintessential Mid-Century Modern Fabric

Bright-colored floral and leaf patterns on barkcloth were used frequently for drapery panels like these.

Bright-colored floral and leaf patterns on barkcloth were used frequently for drapery panels like these.

Two large panels of barkcloth were sewn together to create this great barkcloth quilt.

Two large panels of barkcloth were sewn together to create this great barkcloth quilt.

A close-up of barkcloth showing its nubby texture.

A close-up of barkcloth showing its nubby texture.

For many of us, it doesn’t seem that long ago that we couldn’t wait to get rid of those heavy floral drapes that our parents and grandparents had. Now, if only we had them back! Barkcloth fabric, which was all the rage for drapes, upholstery and other interior decorating from the 1930s to the 1960s, is back in vogue with a vengeance.

Barkcloth is a heavy, woven nubby fabric with a dense weave. The result is a sturdy, durable fabric that is ideal for drapes and upholstery. The fabric is usually cotton, linen or a blend with a synthetic. The name comes from the nubby or bumpy texture that is said to be similar to the bark of a tree.

This bold, bright tropical print is typical of barkcloth.

This bold, bright tropical print is typical of barkcloth.

An unusual piece of barkcloth with a sailboat motif.

An unusual piece of barkcloth with a sailboat motif.

There is some thought that the name barkcloth refers to a paper fabric that was made by soaking and pounding the inner bark of certain trees, such as the paper mulberry, breadfruit and fig trees found in Africa and Asia. The vintage fabric that dominated homes in the ’40s and ’50s was said to be woven to resemble the bumpy texture of this fabric.

Barkcloth patterns are typically very bright and colorful. Floral and tropical prints were among the most popular, but also common were landscapes, birds, botanicals and leaves. Geometrics and abstracts, also referred to as Atomic- or Eames-era barkcloth, came into fashion in the 1950s and ’60s, and recently have enjoyed a new wave of popularity. Large or unused pieces of Atomic- or Eames-era fabric are hard to find and usually command a high price. Unusual novelty patterns, such as cowboy or cocktail themes, also bring higher prices.

An example of Atomic Barkcloth, popular in the 1950s and 1960s.

An example of Atomic Barkcloth, popular in the 1950s and 1960s.

This novelty print depicts a cowboy shoot-out. Notice the OK Corral sign and Tombstone sign on the building. Cowboy prints are very desirable.

This novelty print depicts a cowboy shoot-out. Notice the OK Corral sign and Tombstone sign on the building. Cowboy prints are very desirable.

Barkcloth is believed to have originated in France from a fabric called cretonne. Cretonne is a heavy unglazed cotton or linen fabric used primarily for drapes and upholstery. It is named for a small village in Normandy where linen has been manufactured since the 16th century. It was imported to the United States in the 1920s, and became so popular that by the late 1930s barkcloth was being manufactured in American textile mills.

Barkcloth is very popular for making bags, pillows and jackets. Vintage buttons add to this handmade tote. The tote is available in a variety of barkcloth patterns from the author at her booth in Brimfield’s Quaker Acres.

Barkcloth is very popular for making bags, pillows and jackets. Vintage buttons add to this handmade tote. The tote is available in a variety of barkcloth patterns from the author at her booth in Brimfield’s Quaker Acres.

There is still quite a lot of vintage barkcloth available. Old drapes and slipcovers usually consist of enough fabric to be recycled into pillows, new slipcovers, bags, jackets, or quilts. Barkcloth is being widely reproduced today by a number of fabric manufacturers. While this fabric can be very nice, if authenticity is important, be sure to buy from reputable dealers.

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Lynda Kolski is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage textiles.

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  1. Sheila Fandrey says:

    I have been collecting Barkcloth for some time now. I have several pieces I have never seen on line. Are some more rare than others? How do I find this out? Sheila

    • Lynda Kolski says:

      There were thousands of different barkcloth patterns produced through the years. The most common were florals and botanicals. However, since there were so many different patterns produced by numerous different companies, you’re likely to find only a sampling of various patterns pictured online. What makes a piece of barkcloth more desireable is the type of pattern, for example a cowboy theme or cocktail print can be more collectible than a floral. What might make a piece rare is a very unusual pattern. And, as always, condition is very important in determining the value of any collectible, particularly fabric. If you are interested in finding out about specific pieces that you have in your collection, I would suggest submitting a question along with a detailed description and photos to Ask a Worthologist.

  2. Susan Clark says:

    I am looking for the Tombstone barkcloth, does anyone have? I upholstered a chair but my house burned down and the cushions were destroyed. Trying to replace, need 2 yards of Tombstone! 310 994 7940