Information Regarding Kapa (Tapa) Cloth
Tapa Cloth was introduced to Hawaii and throughout Polynesia by the Tongans, who came
upon this "cloth" in Southeast Asia while searching for materials for sails for their canoes.
Tapa quickly became widely used for blankets, room dividers, and clothing because it was
better than grass, which was heavy, hard, and easier to blow apart. Even today, Tapa is
prized in Tonga. No matter how much money a Tongan family has, they are considered
poor if they do not have a supply of Tapa to give at weddings or funerals. This belief has
cemented the tradition of making Tapa into the culture of Tonga.
In ancient Hawaii, Kapa was used primarily for clothing like the "malo" or loincloth worn by
men, the "paʻū" or wraparound worn by women, and the "kīhei" worn over the shoulders.
Other uses depended on rank and social status in ancient Hawaiian society. Kapa bed
covers were reserved only for the Ali'i (Royals) and Chiefs. Kapa robes were for Kapuna
(Elders) or Priests. Sacred objects were wrapped in Kapa.
The labor-intensive process of making the traditional Kapa introduced to Hawaii by the
Tongans begins with the cultivation of the paper mulberry plant ("Wauke"), which has been
grown straight and tall for 12 months. Mature stalks are cut when about 1 to 2 inches in
diameter. The brown and green outer layers of the stalk are scraped away, revealing a fine
white layer called the "bast." The bast is soaked in ti or banana leaves in a warm, shady
spot and allowed to ferment for up to 10 days. Fermentation is essential to the quality and
texture of the finished Kapa. it is then pounded and rolled with a round beater ("hohoa"). In
ancient times the Kapa was taken to a sacred house at this stage to be beaten a second
time in a religious manner. Today, this second beating is done with a 4-sided pounder ("iʻe
kūkū"), carved with grooves ranging from coarse to smooth. Beating begins with the
coarse side and ends with the smooth side as the fiber pieces are shaped, stretched, and
layered for many hours. The grooved pounder is unique to Hawaii and leaves an
impression or watermark on the finished product. These watermarks often identify the
maker of the cloth. In the final stage plant materials such as wood chips or blossoms are
used to mask the distinct odor of fermented fiber. Early application of dyes changed with
contact with outside world. Captain Cook collected Kapa with bold designs even before he
landed on the islands in 1778. After contact, the application of traditional black and brown
dyes evolved into more intricate geometric designs stamped onto Kapa using carved
Although Wauke was preferred for clothing because of its soft texture after pounding, other
plants such as "Ulu" (Breadfruit) were used to achieve a desired texture or strength. In
some instances, the fermentation and second pounding was also eliminated to attain the
Because of the time and effort required to make Kapa, it was replaced with durable, more
easily-manufactured cotton fabrics introduced to the Hawaiians by missionaries. Today,
the art of making Kapa is becoming a lost art and is threatened with extinction. Kapa can
be seen worn only during traditional ceremonies or on special occasions.
To protect your investment in this treasured material, avoid hanging unframed art in any
location that might subject your painting to kitchen oils or dust. Avoid using feather dusters
or other material that might become trapped in the paint or Tapa. Instead, use "canned air"
(typically used to remove dust from computer keyboards and components), a soft paint
brush to whisk away debris, or carefully vacuum using a soft brush attachment avoiding
heavy suction while removing fine dust.
Paintings by Joel