Relationships between Polynesian island groups are evident in the technology of bark cloth fabrication and design methods. But there are also connections to more esoteric beliefs. One such connection between Hawaiʻi and Tahiti is found in the word hiapo. According to Mary Pukui in her book, “The Polynesian Family System in Kaʻu Hawaiʻi” (1999), the significance of the bark cloth hiapo is related to a special term applying to first born children. Mrs. Pukui suggests that the Hawaiian use of this word reflects the origins of Hawaiian aliʻi coming from Tahiti in ancient days. Hiapo in the Marquesas and Tahiti refers to the cloth which covers the first born child of high rank. Hiapo is used in Hawaiian language to describe a child’s relationship in the family ie., “kuʻu hiapo” which means, my first-born applied to male or female children of rank, or ko makou hiapo, first-born of our family” (Handy & Pukui, pp.46-47, 1999).
In Hawaiʻi, the generic Polynesian term, tapa is called kapa. It is most refined in Hawaiʻi and is recognized as “a variety unsurpassed by any other culture of the Pacific” (Pacific Tapa, p. 91, 1997). The paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), called wauke, in Hawaiian, was grown in abundance in the old days for kapa production. It was used mainly for blankets and clothing. Women dressed in the pāʻū skirt. Men wore the loincloth malo, which was folded to show designs on both sides. A kihei was a cape worn by both men and women. The kihei was useful for cold weather but it was also a garment used particularly during ceremonies.
Ways That Hawaiians Used Kapa Cloth
Priests wore white kapa at ceremonial times. The kapa used in the heiau (place of religious worship), was pure white, undyed, and undecorated (Ancient Hawaiian Civilization, A Lecture Series from Kamehameha Schools, 1979). Religious function included wrapping god images in fine white kapa, and covering heiau towers which were treated as places for the gods to enter.
Bed coverings were made that consisted of five separate sheets sewn together, two and a half, to three yards long, squared. Soiled blankets and clothing were washed carefully, pounded again and reassembled. Uses were determined by different grades or quality of thickness:
Thick, firm pieces for the sleeping houses, which were sewn into layers for added warmth
Delicate lacy and silken pieces for wrapping newborn aliʻi
Oiled kapa, saturated with kukui nut oil or coconut oil for waterproofing and strengthening. This was used to make clothing for fishermen, feather-gatherers and bird-catchers, and covers for canoes
Coarse kapa was used for covering the walls of the anuʻu or oracle’s tower in a heiau. Sometimes this was used to cover the food to be cooked in the imu (oven), before the earth layer was added.
Small twisted pieces were used as wicks in kukui nut lamps
Pieces were tied on trees and along pathways as kapu (sacred) signs and signal flags
Pieces were braided into sandals
Pieces were made into bandages and used for menstruation
Black or brown pieces were used as burial sheets
It was made into kites used as fishing aids as well as for recreation
Pieces were tied into balls at the top of puoʻuloʻu, or kapu sticks, only white was used for this purpose
During certain seasons white and red pieces were used to dress the gods. White was used more often because colors would weather, and white could be seen easily as a landmark from a distance by canoes
Kapa was very special and valued as an important item for trade and gifts. It was a sign of wealth and social status.
Kapa Tools and Processes
Ka Pa means “the beaten”. Trees other than wauke were also used to make kapa. For instance, the ʻulu, breadfruit tree (Artocarpus altilis), and the mamaki (Pipturus albidus) from the nettle family, maʻaloa, hibiscus hau, and olonā plants. Wauke was most valued and cultivated for kapa. Men and women prepared the bark. Men harvested the trees and women peeled off the bark and soaked it until soft. Women produced the majority of kapa cloth, but special hamoʻula or ribbed kapa was made by men.
Tools that were used to make kapa were the koʻi or stone adze that was used to cut the plants. A scraper made of the bony plate of a turtle, or a sharp shell such as from the ʻopihi. A stone knife, or a shark’s tooth lashed onto a wooden handle was used to split the bark, and peel it off the plant. Scrapers were used to scrape off the brown and green outer parts of the bark before beating began. After soaking the inner bark in a fresh water, a smooth stone (pohaku) was used as the anvil, or kua kuku, for the first beating. This step with the stone anvil is seen nowhere else in Polynesia. A hard wood kua kapa lāʻau anvil six to eight feet long and about six inches wide was used for the subsequent beating, until the final product is reached. The preliminary beater, hohoa, was made of a heavy hardwood measuring about a foot long and 2 or 3 inches in diameter, with a tapered handle. Another carved hardwood beater, or iʻe kuku, has four equal sides with each side having lined, grooved surfaces. One or more of the surfaces may have a particular design which imprints on the kapa similar to a watermark on fine bond paper. Other tools were a grooved board and “groover”, tool cleaners, calabashes for water and starches, and “needles” for stitching (Kawai Aonaeoka, Personal Interview, 2005).
Decoration and Dyes
Most women made kapa, but the decorations were done by women of high rank. Kapa design application took pieces that were stained already and printed colorful motifs with delicate tools of wood and bamboo that were used especially for this work.
Various dyes were made from leaves, bark, berries, and roots of native plants and colored earth. Fixatives or mordants such as seawater, urine, oil, and burned coral lime were also used to increase the color fastness of the dyes. Many colors in red, yellow, black, brown, orange, and blue were produced by boiling, infusion, and charring (Life in the Pacific of the 1700s, 2006). Some examples are the charred kukui nut which produced a black dye, the inner bark of kukui made a rich, reddish brown, tumeric root (ʻōlena) gave yellow, noni root gave red, and a silvery-green was extracted from the blossoms of the maʻo, Hawaiian cotton. There were at least fifteen different names for the different colors and qualities they produced (Ancient Hawaiian Civilization, a lecture series from Kamehameha Schools, Revised Edition, p. 141, 1979).
Dye was applied in several ways. By immersion baths, ruling with liners made of bamboo, some with tines like a fork; printing with stamps called ʻohe kāpala, made from strips of bamboo; painting with brushes made from hala keys; and using a cord dipped in dye, stretching the cord across a piece of kapa and then snapping the cord to leave the cord’s mark on the kapa (Kawai Aonaeoka, Personal Interview, 2005).
Freehand painting, which occurs in other parts of Polynesia, was not used much in Hawaiʻi. Hawaiian designs were both applied and impressed. Impressed designs were made during the final beating using the textured beaters for the watermark effect. Applied designs were applied to the upper surface of the kapa by brushing with color using the hala brush, and stamping designs with the ʻohe kāpala.
Kapa was often scented by fragrant plants laid in between folds. Maile, mokihana berries, and pieces of ʻiliahi (sandalwood) were used for this purpose.
As was commonly the case through out Polynesia, mats and kapa were signs of high chiefly status. The finest kapa were found in the dwellings of the aliʻi class, and coarser mats and kapa were used by the general population, or makaʻāinana.
Bark cloth is a very unique symbol of the South Pacific people. Until today, even thought he cloth is not used for everyday purposes such as clothing any more, the designs and style continue to be popular. We can often see kapa motifs on all kinds of products, including fabric.
Kapa moe, bed covering, on display at the Honolulu Academy of Art
lole o kapa na Leilehua Yuen