Monday, June 1, 2020

Bark Tanning

One of the projects I am working in this summer is researching the process of barking or bark tanning. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English describes this as "to immerse a fish-net, sail, etc, in the liquid formed by boiling the bark and buds of a conifer, as a preservative."

People would boil bark, twigs, and branches from local trees in a communal barking pot or barking kettle and use the resulting tea which was rich in tannin to preserve nets, sails, or other canvas goods. The area near where St. John's City Hall is today was once the location of a barking kettle.

It was also used to tan things like seal skin for making boots. There is evidence of the Dorset Paleoeskimo practicing bark tanning of seal skins in Port aux Port, indicating its long history of use in the province. This is a practice which is continued today by some residents on the Northern Peninsula.

Last week, the Craft Council tweeted about the website Handmade In Labrador, a collection of handmade crafts by the Labrador Artisans Co-operative which showcases the traditional craft methods of Southern Labrador. Many of their products use traditional bark tanning to transform cotton duck, a plain, heavy cotton fabric, from white to shades of brown and moss green.

Barked apron with right whale. Labrador Artisan Co-operative via Handmade in Labrador

They include a page with a history of barking in Southern Labrador, and also, wonderfully for my research, an interview with Kathleen O'Brien of West St. Modeste, Labrador on her process of barking cotton duck. Listen to the interview here!


Below is a transcript of the interview.

Interviewer: I am here at Kathleen O’Brien’s, at her house, and she’s going to give me an outline for how to do bark for cotton duck. Go ahead, Kathleen.

Kathleen O'Brien: Go in the forest, first of all, and cut alder trees. You rind the alder, and you put the rind in a container or box for a few days until it turns brown. And the best season for getting your rind is summer or early fall before the sap leaves the rind and goes, you know, because trees go dormant in the fall.

Interviewer: So, would you gather this all one time for all your cossacks or just pick so much at a time?

Kathleen O'Brien: So much at a time because if you took too many the one time it would dry out too much before you get it used. Then, you fill up a large boiler with water, throw in about two gallons of rind from the alders, let it simmer, bring to a boil, boil the rind for about approximately two hours. Then you add two tablespoons of salt because salt helps the bark to go in the material. And then you let it simmer and after it’s boiling for about - simmering and boiling for about six hours, when you see the colour of the colour of the bark go in, you know, through the water, you add, well, two tablespoons of baking soda but do not add the full amount all at once, just gradually add it until it dissolve because, you know, baking soda fizzes up and water in the boiler would boil over, and of course you’d have a mess. Keep simmering and check your bark. If it’s not dark enough you could always add more soda, but keep stirring it around as it's boiling through. When your bark is completed you take it off your stove and strain it with cheesecloth or pantyhose or some kind of a cloth. All the dust into that then will be strained out because if you don’t strain it all the dust from the bark, from the trees, will get in your cotton duck and make a mess on it. So then, when that’s strained off you put it in a bucket or a tub, whatever you have, and add your cotton duck while your water is hot and keep turning, keep turning the cotton duck over so as the material won’t go spotty. So do that until the water starts cooling down, and then after so many hours, only leave it in so many hours. If you leave it in all night all the bark will lodge on the material in different spots and it’ll be darker in some spots and then lighter so to have it all the one thing you just keep stirring it over. And then you take it out and you can put it on your clothesline outdoors to dry or you can put it in the dryer. I found the best was to put it in the dryer. When it was drying it would all dry even. So then it’s ready for to make.

Interviewer: So that’s how you make it.

Kathleen O'Brien: That’s how to make it.


I'd love to chat with anyone who has memories of barking sails, canvas, or skins. I'd especially love to hear from anyone who has barked something recently! You can reach out to me by email at

Works Cited

Dictionary of Newfoundland English.

Renouf, M. A. P., and T. Bell. "Dorset Palaeoeskimo Skin Processing at Phillip's Garden, Port Au Choix, Northwestern Newfoundland." Arctic 61, no. 1 (2008): 35-47. Accessed May 27, 2020.

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