Na Benton Kealii Pang, Ph.D.
Pelekikena-Ke One O Kākuhihewa
What is kapa? What makes it uniquely Hawaiian?
Hawaiian kapa, or tapa is a type of fabric made from the beaten bast fibers of specific trees and shrubs. Fibers are considered “felted”, not woven; the fibers are compressed between a beater and a hard surface rather than woven together on a loom. The ancient Hawaiian women made tapa for men’s loin cloths, malo, women’s skirts, pāʻū, shawls, kīhei, and blankets called kapa more or kuʻina.
The paper mulberry plant, called wauke or poʻaʻaha is a large tree grown in stands and was the primary plant used to make kapa. The trees were planted in cultivated rows with other Polynesia introduced plants like taro, yams, sugar cane, and sweet potatoes. Wauke was not the only plant used to make kapa; the inner bark of the māmaki (Pipturus albidus), maʻaloa (Neraudia melastomifolia) and ʻulu (Artocarpus albidus) were also used.
The Hawaiians recognize two varieties of paper mulberry, poʻaʻaha, with soft rounded leaves, and wauke with rough lobed mature leaves. Tapa makers, especially from Kona, Hawaiʻi, mention the poʻaʻaha variety being easier to pound into kapa than the wauke variety.
It is not clear how widely māmaki kapa was made in Hawaiʻi. The fibers are not very strong and tend to oxidize in the air and turn a dark brown after the drying process. A survey of the Rodman collection in the Bishop Museum by the author determined māmaki was found in at least one-third of the collection. In the same survey, burial kapas were made from the fibers of both wauke, māmaki and maʻaloa.
During the beating process while the bast fibers are wet, two types of beaters are used to loosen them. The rounded hohoa beater is used first. As the fibers get thinner and thinner, a second beater called the ʻie kuku is used. The ʻie kuku is made of the dense hardwood from the kauila (Colubrina oppositifolia) and uhiuhi (Mezoneuron kauaiense) tree. It is four-sided and has intricate geometrical designs incised into the beater. When beaten onto the thin piece of moist wauke, a water mark of the geometric design is stamped into the kapa. Both the thinness of the kapa and the many geometric designs placed as water marks into the kapa make it uniquely Hawaiian.
Hawaiian kapa continues to be made today. The traditions of old are being preserved as authentically as possible. The plants, the dyes and even the designs meticulously create wonderful pieces of outfits for hula, clothing for cultural events and even art exhibitions. Itʻs only when we find ways to perpetuate our culture, that Hawaiian traditions can flourish. The future of Hawaiian culture resides in each one of us.