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.

12 Responses so far.

  1. Frugal Kiwi says:

    Ah, more Pacific similarities. We see lots of tapa cloth in NZ, not from the local Maori, but from the Pacific Islanders who have come from our north, Tonga, Fiji, etc.
    Frugal Kiwi recently posted..DIY Clean Green Oven Cleaner

  2. TeresaR says:

    I, too, craft and sew and love stories like these about traditional ways to make raw materials! I’ve tried to convince dh to take on some sheep to make our own wool, but he thinks I need one less, not one more, hobby. ;)
    TeresaR recently posted..Vancouver – a photo-heavy post

  3. Alexandra says:

    This was fascinating! Imagine having to spend all that time for one piece!

  4. I’m impressed. It sound so hard to do though. I am NOT a crafter. In my next life maybe?
    Jennifer Margulis recently posted..The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

  5. MarthaandMe says:

    I was surprised to see he was pounding it on such a small piece of wood. I imagined it would be laid out on a big flat piece and pounded there.

  6. I was expecting you to say, “First you plant a tree.”

    Very very interesting, even if you don’t have to wait for the tree to grow.
    Vera Marie Badertscher recently posted..Baghdad in War Time

  7. Merr says:

    What a cool canvas to create something else upon…collage or painting.
    Merr recently posted..The 5-Question AuthorCreative Interview- Marian Henley

  8. We saw something similar done in Mexico.
    MyKidsEatSquid recently posted..Jolly Pumpkin’s Edamame Spread

  9. Those finished tapa pieces are incredible – I would love to have a set of placemats or a table runner made from tapa cloth.
    Casey@Good. Food. Stories. recently posted..Backyard Bacon

  10. Teresa, You and I would get along well! I’m always up for a new project (say, milk cows) but my husband thinks I’m kooky.

    Brette, this is done just in small pieces. Amazing, isn’t it?

    Vera Maria, actually the trees have become hard to find here. As the practice is revived, practitioners ARE planting trees, so there will be enough material to work with!
    Kris Bordessa recently posted..On My Honor- Hawaii’s Roadside Stands

  11. Alisa Bowman says:

    Wow–we’re all gotten so soft that we buy so much from the store, eh? It was really informative to read about this and also to see the pictures.
    Alisa Bowman recently posted..What’s Your Marriage Secret

  12. That was SO interesting. I’m also a crafter–I don’t sew though. Have the machine but it’s just not in me. My mother is very good so I’m lazy in that regard. I like just about everything else though and this was cool. I loved the pics too.. so cool. He must really love making Tapa!! What do they charge for it? What’s the size of it, traditionally, once done? Really curious about this stuff…