Making Tapa Cloth
I am a crafter, and also, occasionally a seamstress. My projects begin with raw materials like fabric or beads or paper purchased at a store. Materials that have been manufactured with the use of heavy machinery. I could start those project of mine from true raw materials if I chose: weaving my own fabric from wool, or if I were really serious, raising my own sheep. I choose not to do so.
Not so for cultural practitioners in Hawai‘i. On a recent weekend I had the opportunity to watch Benjamin at work making tapa (or kapa) cloth. Benjamin talked about the process of making tapa as he carefully pounded a work in progress.
Made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree (wauke in Hawai‘i) the resulting cloth was traditionally used for clothing and bedding. The bark is fermented in water for about a week, and then the pounding begins. As the wet bark is pounded, the fibers mesh together and flatten out. This isn’t a one shot deal, though. A single piece of bark is pounded repeatedly, from one end to the other. Over time, the bark flattens and widens into a thin, damp sheet of cloth. To make a larger sheet of tapa, small pieces are combined by overlapping the edges and pounding until the two pieces are one. There are no seams or glued edges. It’s a long process that requires much patience. When dried, the tapa feels much like homemade paper.
I asked Benjamin how long it takes to make a small piece of tapa, like the one he was working on. “Could take a whole day.” He shrugged and laughed, “But if it takes that long, you haven’t learned your job very well.”
Here he is in action:
If you would like to see some beautiful examples of finished tapa, please visit the photo gallery at Kapa Hawaii.