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If These Sheets Could Talk

An exhibit and ongoing research shed light on kapa moe, Hawaiian sleeping cloths.


What inspired the designs on this kapa moe? It's just one of the mysteries of these Hawaiian sleeping cloths, part of the collection of the Honolulu Academy of Arts. The public is able to view them, many for the first time, during an exhibition on through April 9.

photo: courtesy of the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

The sleeping covers are as large as 10-feet wide and were crafted from the inner bark of the wauke plant, also known as paper mulberry. It was beaten to soften it. Layers of kapa would be stitched together for warmth, with generally only the top layer, or kilohana, colored and decorated with pigments.

"Making kapa is very labor intensive," says contemporary kapa practitioner Moana Eisele. "You have to raise the plants, make the tools, make the dyes." Eisele has been working with kapa since 1978, and says that the art wasn't dead so much as dormant. "It's much more alive now than when I started," she says.

Hawaiian kapa is softer, thinner and more intricate than the kapa produced in other Polynesian cultures, says Sara Oka, the Academy's collection manager of textiles. The Hawaiians fermented the kapa and also beat tiny imprints into the surface, creating what is today called watermarks. "If you hold Hawaiian kapa up to the light, it's like lace," says Oka. When I touched it, the kilohana felt fairly crisp, but the underlayers were much softer than newspaper.

The patterns on the kapa range from strong geometrics, to flag-like stripes and florals. "They were perhaps influenced by foreign cloth—perhaps not," says Oka. "We know quilts were in the Islands starting in 1820." Whether a design was inspired by contact with whalers, missionaries, 19th-century wallpaper or some human desire for horizontal stripes—it's hard to know. Oka points out a cloth that might be about protection, as it features a shark's tooth pattern and a motif that represents the footsteps of the ancestors. "The use of negative and positive space in Hawaiian designs is amazing," remarks Eisele.

The sleeping cloths were probably painted using the fibrous insides of a hala key or with a pouch of dye. Some were stenciled using banana leaves as a tool. Colors came from natural sources, such as 'akala, endemic raspberry, to create a purple-red; ground charcoal for gray; clay or annatto for orange. Other colors are influenced by contact with Westerners, such as a hue called "Turkey Red." "These might be wool fibers," says Oka, pointing to a part of a kapa that looks lint-like. "We're getting some analyzed."

The dates on the kapa moe in the exhibit refer not to when they were created, but to when they were donated to the museum. "We think they are pre-1860," says Oka, "because one source showed that taxes could be paid using kapa until 1860 but not afterwards."

Why so much uncertainty? "There's no one left who made these or used them," explains Oka.

While researching the kapa, the Academy traced the families that had originally donated them, and contacted their living relatives. Many came to the exhibit and were amazed that the kapa moe had once been in their family. "I thought it was important to show these to the public," says Oka. "I think they are just exquisite."

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