Mulberry Bark Mayhem
By Sonja Lee-Austin
© Copyright 2005
You may have heard of mulberry, shoji, or saa papers? They are all made out of the bark of mulberry trees. Have you ever played with mulberry bark? It has a texture and feel similar to raw silks. Surprising? Not if you happen to know that silk worms live off of eating mulberry leaves. Because of this silk-like texture, mulberry fibers are great for incorporating in quilts and multi-media artwork
Until recently mulberry bark was only available in its unprocessed state for sale to paper makers. Now you can get the fibers ready to use for your artwork. It is available unbleached, bleached, and dyed. The processed bark looks like a mesh of crisscrossed threads.
There are many ways to play with the bark. You can cut up the fiber and stitch or glue it to your artwork. Funky threads and ribbons can be weaved through the fiber. It also takes dyes beautifully. To create all over texture with paint, paint the bark and then press onto paper or fabric. Continue to paint and press the bark onto the fabric until you have covered the fabric with pattern. An alternative is to use the bark like a stencil dabbing paint through the fiber mesh with a stiff paintbrush.
More three dimensional shapes and thinner, wispy layers can be created with the bark. Soak the bark in water for a few minutes to soften the fibers. While wet, the fibers can be separated into thinner layers, distressed through stretching, ripped into smaller strips, or pressed onto molds.
To mold into a 3-D shape, find a bowl or other object to mold your bark over. For a more complex shape you can use wire mesh to create an armature. If you have any tight folds, you may need to pin the fibers into place until they dry. Once dry, the bark will hold its shape as long as it isn’t subjected to damp conditions. For extra permanence, use some starch in the water when you soak the bark. The shell in “Nautilus” shown here is bleached mulberry bark formed over molded wire mesh.
If you have the determination and safety requirements, it is possible to create a different range of textures with unprocessed mulberry bark as shown in “Magpie’s Gift”. It will be unlikely that you can hand process the bark so that it obtains the same amount of soft laciness as the processed bark Instead you will obtain a more straw-like laciness that has its own charms. You should have access to very well ventilated room and a respirator or a suitable outside area and a portable burner. The unprocessed fibers are sold by the name of “Thai Kozo” fibers from select papermaking suppliers.
You will boil the fibers with soda ash for at least a few hours according to papermaking directions. Once the bark has been boiled and cooled, it will remain pliable for hours or longer if you wrap it in plastic. Carefully peel apart layers of the bark to obtain more a more lacy texture. You will eventually start to grow mold, if you store the damp fibers too long. As long as the fibers remain moist you can stretch, peel into thin layers, and mold the bark fibers to your hearts content.
The artistic uses of mulberry bark fibers in their more raw state have only just begun to be explored. Please join me in stretching these fibers to their limit literally and figuratively.
Suppliers of raw mulberry bark: