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BARK CLOTH - an ancient material meets biopolymers

Bark fleece is known to be the most ancient material and has been used for thousands of years. It is made in Africa using traditional methods. The company BARK CLOTH Europe, based in Ebringen, Germany is working with organic farmers in Uganda to produce this wood-free biomaterial. Working with partners of the Biopolymers/Biomaterials Cluster, BARK CLOTH Europe now hopes to refine BARKCLOTH® with biopolymers.

BARK CLOTH Europe was established in 1999 and is a pioneer in the systematic production of bark cloth. Previously a development aid project, the project is now self-sufficient and hundreds of small-scale farmers and their families in Uganda depend on it for a living. "Bark fleece is one of the oldest textiles," said Oliver Heintz, founder and managing director of the company, adding that he was convinced right from the start that the material had a lot more to offer than at first appeared.

Each bark cloth is unique

Bark cloth is cultivated from Mutuba trees (Ficus natalensis) on mixed plantations in Uganda. In 2005, UNESCO declared the manufacturing process of bark cloth an intangible cultural world heritage. Bark cloth is traditionally manufactured by the Baganda who live in southern Uganda. The bark is harvested during the rainy season and turned into a soft fabric using a different range of wooden hammers, thereby giving the bark a unique and fine texture and colours in different shades of brown. “Part of our company’s mission is to show that it is possible to manufacture semi-finished products for industry using manual rather than industrial techniques,” said Heintz. Bark cloth is not a mass-produced product. No one cloth looks like another. The tree bark is turned into cloths of unique colours and textures. However, this does not prevent the cloth from being produced in compliance with ISO standards. “For example, an ISO-certified high-pressure laminate is produced from Barkcloth®, and is particularly used in architectural applications, i.e. furniture and wall coverings,” said Heintz.

BARKTEX®_Plus-Latex_059 has received numerous awards

BARK CLOTH Europe offers a broad range of finished varieties of the robust fabric as BARKTEX®. The bark cloth "BARKTEX®_Plus-Latex_059" was awarded the Materialica Design + Technology Award in October 2008, a prize that has been awarded annually since 2003. BARKTEX®_Plus-Latex_059 is a material that resembles a textile and is made from the sub-bark of the fig tree (Ficus natalensis) and coated with natural latex of the caoutchouc tree Hevea brasilliensis. These two materials grow very rapidly and are permanently self-renewing materials that can be harvested once (bark) or several times (latex) per year. BARK CLOTH Europe developed the material in cooperation with the rubber-collector cooperative Seringuero Machado do Oeste and the Freiburg-based Rainforest Institute - Institute for Applied Rainforest Protection. Due to its latex-coated surface, the three-dimensionally mouldable fleece exhibits abrasion optimised, water- and strain-resistant characteristics. BARKTEX®_Plus-Latex_059 is an excellent substitute for petroleum-based fibre materials and can be used as furniture upholstery, in sports gear and fashion, for armoured cases and in the automobile sector. In addition, BARKTEX®_Plus-Latex_059 was awarded second prize in the "Biomaterial of the Year" award, which the Nova Institute awarded for the first time in December 2008.

Bark fleece with biopolymer resins

BARK CLOTH Europe is continuing the development and manufacture of economical, ecological and socially sustainable fibre materials for different industrial and craft sectors. The company has already received numerous distinctions, including the Freiburg Innovation Award in 2006. In addition, BARK CLOTH Europe was nominated for the official German Design Award in 2007.

The company was involved in the NIOS research project (Sustainable innovations for the outdoor and sports sector) co-financed by the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt, one of Europe's largest foundations for the promotion of innovative and exemplary environmental projects. In Uganda, the company runs the International BARK CLOTH Research and Training Institute whose goal is to bring together knowledge about bark fleece production in Africa, Latin America and the Southern Pacific area, enabling the company to develop industrial and craft products based on bark fleece.

Oliver Heintz now hopes to make further progress in the development of bark fleece. "In early 2009, we began combining bark fleece with biopolymers," explains Heintz. "We have been fortunate to have some initial experience with biopolymer resins. BARK CLOTH intends to produce natural fibre laminates that are functional as well as visually attractive," said the company founder. "The strength of the material is clearly in its visual design potential," said Heintz. By refining the bark fleece with biopolymer resins, the material can also be used for casings, transportation design and furniture. Oliver Heintz is aware that it will be difficult for the company to achieve the developments on its own. "It is our goal to develop such applications in close cooperation with various partners and we are therefore looking for partners who will be able to assist us in this innovative process."

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