Differences in Polynesian Kapa/Tapa



Over the years, certain images became more ingrained in peoples; minds as to what Tapa cloth is. I remember as a fourth grader in a San Diego public school, making our own tapa cloth out of brown paper bags and coloring in the black block print style that was shown to us by the teacher. Even though I'm Hawaiian,I had no idea what Hawaiian tapa looked like; nevertheless, I was feeling very native while we did the project in class.

In discussing specifically Polynesian bark cloth differences, the first thing we may examine is the names of the various cloths. The larger island groups each made their cloth using certain methods, dyes, printing techniques, etc. The major similarity was that they all used the Paper Mulberry or Broussonetia Papyrifera as the favored plant. There were other plants used among islanders including the breadfruit and fig, however the paper mulberry produced the best tapa cloth. The following is a list of some of the known native names of Polynesian tapa and the mulberry plant:


As you can see, the local names of bark cloth vary widely. In Hawaii, we call the cloth ‘kapa’. In simple terms, the word can mean, ‘the beaten thing’; “ka” meaning ‘the’, and “pa” meaning ‘to strike or hit’. Keep in mind that the Hawaiian language as we know it today was not the same as the language spoken before the arrival of Westerners. At that time, it is very likely that Hawaiian bark cloth was called tapa. The question is, why did all of the Polynesian bark cloth become known as tapa? I have my own theories on this. The Europeans, Russians and Americans at that time did quite a bit of traveling between islands. Between the explorers, whalers, missionaries and the crew, which was often composed of islanders as well, bark cloth was bought and received as gifts or in trade. It is very likely that whichever term was the easiest to remember was the one most commonly used. Hence, after these many years, the word tapa has come to symbolize all Polynesian bark cloth, and the cloth most commonly seen and most widely used even up to these modern times, which would have been the cloths from Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, would be the images that spring first to our minds when the word tapa is used. As a modern day kapa maker in Hawaii, I use the word kapa to create a distinction in people’s minds between our Hawaiian cloth and that of the rest of the Pacific. (Photo: Tongan Nagatu, Personal Collection)

Besides differences in name there are differences in production methods and tools and I could write a small dissertation for you as explanation, however, it’s enough to make just a few points here:

1. Plants

As we have seen above, most of the islands utilized the paper mulberry for tapa production. In some islands, other plants were used for various reasons. In Tahiti, it is believed that the breadfruit tree was used to make the cloth that the commoners wore while the royalty wore the mulberry. In some islands, cloth was made from trees like the Ficus and banyan, which produced somewhat coarser but very durable cloth. Interestingly, the tree called Upas, used in Tikopia and the Santa Cruz Islands, was also known for its toxicity and its sap was used as arrow poison in the islands of Java where it also grows.  (Photo: Fijian Masi, Personal Collection)

2. Tools

The tools used in tapa production are actually quite similar from island to island. Essentially, these consisted of some type of wooden beater, averaging 12- 14 inches (30-36cm) in length and 2-4 inches (5-10 cm) in diameter. Beaters were round, club shaped or squared off with four equal sides. In some islands like Tonga, the square beaters flared outwards on the end opposite the handle. Beaters were smooth or had grooves on their surfaces, depending on the stage of tapa that was being beaten. In Hawaii, the lined surface on at least one side of square beater or ‘I’e Kuku’ contained as many as 18 lines per inch. The Hawaiian beater also differed from the others in having a watermark pattern on one side. This watermark, when beaten in became a subtle and unusual design element of the finished cloth. Anvils that the bark was beaten on also varied. In many islands it was nothing more than a tree that was halved lengthwise so that it would sit securely. In Hawaii, the anvil was roughly squared, then finished with a slightly wider base than top. The inside was hollowed out, possibly to make it easier to move and also to give it a pleasing sound. Anvils of both types were often set on stone or wood blocks to raise them to a more comfortable level for a long day of beating. For separating the fibrous bark from the stalk of the tree as well as for scraping the outside bark off the inner bark, items employed for this use included limpet or clam shells in their natural or worked state, sharks teeth, sharpened stones and even the tapa makers own teeth… still attached to the tapa maker of course. Tools for printing also varied widely, from the small carved bamboo sticks used in Hawaii and known as ‘ohe kapala’, to the large carved wooden tablets used in Samoa called ‘upeti’. Of course hand printing was used in all areas and paint brushes were often made from the dried seeds of the pandanas tree.

3. Patterns and Colors

The first thing a person sees of course is not the type of tree or tool used but the design and pattern of the cloth. siapoDesigns can be very simple and primitive to what can only be called sophisticated. Of all the elements in tapa making, design is the one that evolved the most in terms of the influences that affected islanders after European contact. Another evolutionary process occurred as islanders sailed further and further away during migrations. For instance, the tapa in Tonga and Samoa is similar enough to be difficult to tell apart without some knowledge of each island's particular motif preferences. In Hawaii however, the kapa changed drastically in design and production method, even though the original people who settled Hawaii were from the South Pacific islands, including Tahiti and Aotearoa. They brought the plants and tools and methods that they knew and had learned from their grandmothers and over the next generations changed it into something vastly different. Artistically speaking, design elements were most likely influenced by things the islanders were familiar with and their personal interpretations of these items. Motifs that represented the sea, the mountains, marine and other animal life were depicted, but in looking at collections of island tapa it appears that geometric designs were highly favored and widely used. Even in freehand methods, repetitive linear patterns seem best for covering the often extremely large tapa. But even within the parameters of geometrics there are countless variances of pattern. From the distinct and intricate stenciling done in Fiji to the eye-fooling repetitive use of the bamboo stamp in Hawaii to the delicate pressings of fern dipped in dye on Tahitian tapa. As foreigners arrived and brought new and never before seen items to the islands, these were also incorporated into tapa design. One Fijian tapa depicts a musket rifle, but done in a very stylized, geometric form. A favorite Tongan motif is a coat of arms of the Tongan royal family, most likely an influence of the Islands’ time as a British protectorate. It is thought that even the patterns on western-introduced cotton and muslin fabric, such as paisley and calico, influenced later tapa design.  (photo: Samoan Siapo, Personal Collection)

Tapa dyes ranged from deepest black to every color and subtle, pastel-hued variation of the rainbow to pure white. In all islands, dyes were locally produced from plants and minerals native to the areas. Plant material included roots, bark, sap, leaves, flowers and fruit. Sometimes even animal products were used, such as the black dye made from the ink sac of the squid and octopus. Pacific islanders had no metallic based mordents to set dyes, but utilized the mud and clays as well as the ocean water and coral that was burned and crushed, to create other colors as well as produce a certain degree of color-fastness in their cloth. In Hawaii, the native kapa makers even introduced fibers of red ‘turkey cloth’ as it was called by the missionary women who brought it, into their kapa, and produced a deep pink cloth. Kapa colored this way would not fade and many of this type of kapa exist in museum collections today.  (Photo: Papua New Guinea Tapa, Personal Collection)




              Hawaiian Kapa with watermarking




         Hawaiian Kapa, Bishop Museum



  Samoan Siapo (Collection of Brooke Holt-Froiseth)


I often check on Ebay looking at tapa cloth there. Its amazing to me how much there is and how far from home it is. Also interesting is the fact that virtually any tapa that came from Hawaii is called ‘Hawaiian tapa cloth’. I have been known to send gentle emails to people pointing out that “your tapa is actually called ngatu (or siapo or masi) and is from the island of Tonga (or Samoa or Fiji) but it is an excellent example of native bark cloth…good luck on your auction.” I’m honestly not doing this to be a know-it-all or anything, but as a teacher of Hawaiian kapa making for nearly ten years, I feel it something of a cultural duty to educate people on what they have. And for the most part, people have written back and thanked me for telling them something about their tapa which was something their parents brought back from the islands in the ‘60’s and they always just assumed it was Hawaiian and by the way, do I know what a tapa like this is really worth? Only once I saw Hawaiian kapa on Ebay (besides some that I listed) and its asking price was $10,000.00. Of course, they were pieces that were cut from pieces that were collected during Capt. James cook’s first trip to Hawaii and interestingly enough, some of those same pieces were here in Hawaii during a show of Polynesian artifacts that are housed in a German university and were on display for the very first time. The Ebay pieces did not sell during that auction.


         Hawaiian Kapa, Bishop Museum, Hawai


         Tongan Ngatu (Personal Collection)

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