Tapa:

The Fabric of Hawai‘i


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Ancient Hawaiians saw the clouds in the sky as white tapa spread out to dry by the goddess Hina. She placed stones on the corners of the tapa to keep them from being blown away by the strong winds. When Hina threw the stones aside, thunder was created. Lightning was caused by the flicker and sparkle of the folds of her tapa cloth as Hina rolled it to protect it from the rain. Mäui, son of Hina, lengthened the day by catching the sun over Haleakalä and slowing it in order to help Hina dry her tapa.

Tapa is also sometimes known as kapa. The Hawaiian pronunciation of certain consonants varied from place to place and even from speaker to speaker in the same area. The consonants t and k, v and w, b and p, l and r and d were some of the troublesome letters. According to Albert Schutz in the introduction to Lorrin Andrews's A Dictionary of the Hawaiian Language, "Native speakers were consulted again and again, and the results were the same: it simply didn't matter which of the sounds in the group were used ... In 1826, the missionaries put the question to a vote [for the first Hawaiian alphabet], deciding on k, p, l, and w and discarding the other letters, except to write foreign borrowings." However, the t is still used for the k, especially on the island of Hawai'i, and tapa is the most familiar word to many.

The linear designs on this malo (men’s clothing) are typical of early Hawaiian tapa. Photos Courtesy of Na Mea Makamae: Hawaiian Treasures

All early Pacific cultures made fabric from the pounded bark of certain plants, but Hawaiian tapa was distinguished from all the rest by its fine texture, bold colors and abstract designs. Used for clothing, ornaments, bedding, burial shrouds, religious coverings and banners, tapa was usually made from the inner bark of the wauke and mämake plants. Men may have helped in the cultivation of the plant and the stripping of the bark, but tapa making was the work of the women. David Malo, a noted Hawaiian scholar born in 1795, said tapa making was "a source of considerable profit; so the women who engaged in it were held to be well off, and were praised for their skill."

The bark was carefully stripped from the cultivated, mature plants with a sharp, serrated shell. Strips were then rolled into coils, with the inner bark on the outside. When unrolled, the outer bark could be pulled or scraped off. It was important to get all the darker impurities out at this stage, so that nothing was left but the clean, white, inner bark. As 19th-century Hawaiian scholar Samuel Kamaka poetically stated, "Well-made tapa must be clearer than moonlight; clearer than snow on the mountains."

The cleaned inner bark was wrapped in ti leaves, soaked in water and fermented for at least a week. After that, the strips were joined in bundles of five and given a preliminary beating with a round tapa beater on a stone or wooden anvil. These partially beaten bundles, called mo'omo'o, were then sun-dried, giving them a clean, white color.

At this point, the mo'omo'o could be stored or given a final beating, called the kau process. Five mo'omo'o were wrapped in ti leaves and soaked in water again for a week, or until the fermentation process produced the required degree of sliminess and softness. In specially built houses or shaded caves, bundled mo'omo'o was beaten on a wooden tapa anvil (kua), with wooden tapa beaters called i'e kuku. The underside of the kua was grooved and produced a distinctive hollow sound when beaten, a sound fondly remembered in many early accounts of Hawai'i.

The i'e kuku were four-sided with grooves or decorated patterns carved on each side. The beating started with the coarse grooves and progressed to the finer grooves. Hawaiian tapa is distinguished from other Pacific fabrics by its fine, even texture. Another unique characteristic of 19th-century Hawaiian tapa was that carved beaters were used to imprint patterns on the finished tapa. These patterned beaters created a watermark seen when the tapa was held up to the light. Completed tapa was spread out to dry in the sun. Stones, which held down the corners to keep the tapa flat, had to be moved periodically to prevent tearing.

Dry, white tapa sheets provided early Hawaiian artists with backgrounds to express themselves with color and design. Samples of Hawaiian tapa collected by Captain James Cook in 1778 and 1779 were decorated with bold colors and abstract designs, unlike any other Pacific island fabric. Detailed repetition of color and lines produced pleasing designs. Dyes were produced from leaves, roots and stems of plants, charcoal or earth mixed with water, and brushed or stamped onto the tapa. Sometimes the whole sheet was immersed in the dye if a single color was desired. Decoration of tapa was an individual expression with no rigid requirements. Linear designs, net patterns, rectangles and squares were just some of the ways Hawaiian artists used to decorate tapa.

With the introduction of metal, more detailed designs were carved into the tapa beaters themselves. When these carved beaters were used for the final beating, the designs were imprinted in the tapa. Designs were also carved in bamboo stamps, which were used to imprint the tapa. Repetition of these stamped designs produced patterns.

Hawaiian men wore malo, loincloths made of tapa, which were about a foot wide and six to eight feet long. The malo was wrapped between the legs and around the waist; the free ends were tucked into the waistband and left to hang in the front. A stitching in the middle joined early versions of the malo, because the normal length of a mo'omo'o was too short for one malo. An important ceremony in early Hawai'i was the initiation of a heiau which included the dressing of the principle wooden image with the sacred malo of the king. This act sanctified the heiau and gave life to the wooden image of the god.

The English translation for a part of this ceremonial chant follows:

The sacred malo of the king is life to the women chiefs.

Bind it fast to the heiau,

An ordinary heiau, a royal heiau,

A heiau for the king, for 'Umi, son of Lïloa.

Long live the king!

May he be victor, and put down his enemies!

Array now the god image in the malo!

It is accepted, the ceremony, the ceremony of the king is accepted!

The pa'u, a dress for Hawaiian women, was a garment that measured about three feet wide and nine feet long. It was wrapped around the breasts or around the waist and tucked in to keep it in position. The clothing of the ali'i women was decorated with great detail and color. The pa'u could also consist of many layers, which were sewn on one side to keep them together. Lucy Thurston, one of the pioneer missionaries to Hawai'i, recalled a feast given by Liholiho (Kamehameha II) in 1820 to commemorate the death of King Kamehameha I:

"Kamamalu, his favorite queen, ... according to court ceremony, so arranged a native cloth pa'u a yard wide, with ten folds, as to be enveloped round the middle with seventy thicknesses. To array herself in this unwieldy attire, the long cloth was spread of the ground, when, beginning at one end, she laid her body across it, and rolled herself over and over till she had rolled the whole around her ... after this presentation was over, her majesty lay down again upon the ground and unrolled the cloth by reversing the process of clothing."

Kapa moe were the sleeping covers of the Hawaiians. They consisted of layers of tapa sewn along one border to keep them together. Generally, a kapa moe had a kilohana (an outer, colored sheet) and two or more inner, white sheets. They were about seven feet by eight feet. Tapa also was used to cover the oracle towers on the heiau platforms. These towers were called 'anu'u and it was here that the gods spoke to the kahuna. Cook visited a heiau site with artist John Weber, who recorded the trip with a drawing published in the atlas of Cook's third voyage. Cook commented on these towers on his initial visit to Kaua'i:

"As we ranged down the coast from the east, in the ships, we had observed at every village one or more elevated white objects, like pyramids or rather obelisks; and one of these, which I guessed to be at least 50 feet high, was very conspicuous from the ship's anchoring position and seemed to be at no great distance up this valley."

Another religious use for tapa was the banner of tapa on the Lono image. This banner which hung from the Lono image crossbars, resembled the sails of Cook's ship and the Hawaiians believed Cook was their god, Lono, returning as he had promised. This image of Lono was carried around the island from ahupua'a to ahupua'a during the makahiki season. This was the tax-collecting season and it was the duty of the konohiki (overseer) to have all the taxes collected before the image reached his district. Once the taxes were collected and accepted by the priest, the land was pronounced free. Celebrations and harvest followed this declaration. The tax for each 'ili (division of an ahupua'a) was a hog, a dog, a fishnet, a fish line, a cluster of feathers and 20 tapas.

Tapa making ceased in the latter part of the 1800s, since most Hawaiians had by that time, converted to cotton clothing and bedcovers. In the 1920s, tapa was popular for book covers and mementos for tourists. However, this rough-textured, brown-lined tapa was more like the Samoan or Fijian tapa. In the 1980s, a few Hawaiian artists were successful in duplicating the fine texture and artistic decorations of Hawaiian tapa. This dedicated research into Hawaiian tapa making is just a part of the revival and pride that Hawaiians are finding in their own culture. Learning about this ancient practice allows them to connect with their ancestors and historical traditions in a way in which they can pass on this information to their keiki in order to keep their culture alive.

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