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Words by Kumu Page Chang

Native Hawaiian Kapa - Building a Sustainable Future

As a modern Native Hawaiian Kapa maker, I am sad for the Wahine (the Native Hawaiian woman) who laboured over this piece of Kapa cloth, whose work has been reduced to a catalogue number and a description that is sorely lacking in information. I donʻt blame the catalogist, the collections manager, or curator for not knowing more; they are not at fault. So many Native peoples who are victims of colonialism have practices that are lost or no longer understood.  Kapa making is a practice that was almost completely lost after the colonial missionaries brought woven fabrics from Europe and taught Hawaiian women to weave using imported foreign fibres, tools, and protocols.   Kapa making is one of many examples of our brilliant Native Hawaiian practices being put away, locked in a drawer by the proverbial “Colonist”.  The Kapa practice holds far-reaching Native Hawaiian lessons, hidden away for generations, that could and should be re-examined, re-learned, and re-implemented in today's world. Here, I attempt to give you an opportunity to see this object with a different point of view.  My goal is to share what kapa is, how it is made, and lessons I have learned as a Native practitioner.

What is Native Hawaiian Kapa?

Hawaiian Barkcloth, Kapa, or Tapa, is the fabric of Hawai‘i.  It is made primarily from the Paper Mulberry, or Broussonetia Papyrifera, a plant that has travelled the world and has been used in many cultures for similar purposes.  In Hawai‘i the plant itself is called Wauke and was brought to the Hawaiian Islands by the first Polynesian voyagers to arrive in Hawai‘i over a thousand years ago.  Some scholars say these Voyagers were from the Marquesas, some say Tahiti.

Here, it was cultivated to grow in tall, skinny stalks, propagating itself through underground runners.  It grows in clumps with the runners spreading out beyond the circumference of the “Wauke Patch”.

In Hawai‘i today, we call the Barkcloth made from the Wauke tree, Kapa, although historically it was likely called Tapa.  When in 1826, American Missionaries created the first written alphabet for ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, Hawaiian language,  they voted out the T and the R sounds that were previously commonly used in the language.   We choose to call it Kapa now, because it differentiates our Barkcloth practice from that of other Polynesian cultures that still use the name Tapa.

Kapa cloth was used for trade, clothing, bedding, decoration, ceremony, and any other fabric needed in daily life.  The Wauke fibre was also used to make baskets and cordage, fishing line, and everyday string or rope.  Hawaiian Kapa cloth was considered the highest form of textile finery, beauty, colour, and texture in all of Polynesia. 

It is difficult, time consuming work with many steps and processes, and was a vital part of Hawaiian society.  Kapa making creates a deep partnership with the Ā‘ina (land), resulting in a physical, creative expression of that connection.  It represented ancient Hawaiian fashion, art, and the cultural practice of Aloha ‘Āina (to love the land).


How Kapa is made

This piece of Hawaiian Kapa cloth is easily recognized as Hawaiian due to its surface decoration that brilliantly uses a combination of carved ‘Ohe Kapala (Bamboo stamps).  An exclusive Hawaiian practice, the artists of Hawai‘i used the kapala in complex combinations to achieve remarkable designs. In this piece, we see a composition that at first glance looks like a checkerboard. With closer inspection, it reveals the artist thoughtfully inking and placing a narrow stamp of “zig-zags” in rows of five to create one rectangle, and then repeating this process 150 times on this small sample piece. 

Looking past the surface design, we see the slightly raised watermark in the Kapa, created as the artisan beats, or rather, taps, the material with her own custom carved I‘e Kuku (Kapa beater).  She uses this tool in the final stage of making the actual textile.  The 4-sided beater has 3 sides of long straight grooves called pū‘ili that have various widths, anywhere from 4 to 20 or more grooves to one side.  The 4th side has a distinct pattern carved into it, usually crossing lines creating squares or lozenges, and is unique to each Kapa maker. It would have been made from the native Hawaiian Kauila or ‘Uhi‘uhi trees, both having exceptionally hard wood and both now endangered species.  Although it is said that most Kapa makers were women and the carving of tools was done by men, the first ‘Ie Kuku was carved by Lauhuiki, the ‘Aumakua or ancestor Goddess of all I‘e kuku carvers.

As the Kapa maker moves the fibres of the Kapa fabric across her Kua La‘au (a carved wooden anvil), with each pass she makes the fabric thinner and wider, using the various grooved sides of her beater in succession.  She finishes the piece of Kapa with the carved watermark of her beater, leaving the mark of the Kapa maker and her I‘e Kuku within it.  Because no other barkcloth-making society used this watermarking technique, we know that this piece of Kapa is Hawaiian.

We also know that the bast fibre, the Mo’omo’o (inner bark of the tree) that was harvested from the Wauke tree, was fermented because this was also exclusively a Hawaiian practice, and allowed the watermark to be visible.  Fermenting the material before its final production into a sheet of Kapa made the material very soft, even dough-like, allowing it to be felted into a solid sheet that could be very soft, but also very strong.  It gives the Kapa a beautiful, smooth finish, diminishes the rough, fibrous quality commonly seen in other styles and traditions of barkcloth, and allows for a clean watermark impression. 

Prior to fermentation, the Mo‘omo‘o (the inner bark or bast fibre) is removed from the trees, pounded on a Pōhaku (rock) with a Hohoa (small wooden club), making the stiff bark wider, softer, and flexible. The bark is then set in water to ferment.  Fermentation time varies, depending on the variety, age, and size of the Wauke tree and the Mo‘omo‘o that it yields.  Depending on the weather, it can take anywhere from  three days to  three weeks to achieve the best result for pounding into a sheet of Kapa.  The material will have a specific “stink'' due to being fermented, and when it “gives” when pinched, it is mākaukau-it is ready.


Kapa Represents the Lāhui-the Nation of Hawaiian people

It took a community of practitioners to create this one piece of Kapa, which dates to the late 19th century. The Hawaiian Kapa industry was huge, serving the needs of royalty and commoners alike, which was likely over one million people.  The Kapa industry had dedicated and protected spaces for skilled practitioners:  farmers, growers, gatherers, wood and stone carvers, Kapa makers, artists, and designers.  It had its own origin stories and Gods and Goddesses that taught and inspired.  It took planning, organising, reverence and respect of the resources needed.  It took knowledge of sustainably sourcing wood to create the I‘e Kuku and Kua La‘au (Kapa Beater and anvil), of using and creating carving implements with no metal: only stone, bone, teeth, and extremely hard wood.  It took advance planning and tending to grow and choose the right size and type of Wauke trees for the textile itself, and to encourage new growth for the next tree.  It took intention and vision to create the final shape and size of the pieces for their intended purposes.  It took design principles of balance and beauty.  It took maths.  Kapa, like most other native practices in Hawaii, was a communal effort supported by every citizen of every rank.  And when the work was pau (finished), you were expected to play!

Sadly, Kapa making in Hawai‘i was another one of the many casualties of colonialism.  Besides the 8 out of 10 people that died very soon after Captain Cook made contact with the islands, the loss of sovereignty, language, art, ritual, agriculture, government, land divisions and use, and resource management left a cavernous wound that we Native Hawaiians are still desperately trying to heal. Ironically, globally, the many victims of colonisation and settler practices are the people that most valued and best managed our natural environment. 

The effects of the global systems of production, trade, and commerce have had dire local and global consequences.  One of the worst offending systems is the fashion and textile industry.  This industry alone is responsible globally for 30% of all microplastic fibres emitted into the atmosphere, 20% of poisoned fresh water, and 10% of the world's greenhouse gases. And still it has ramped up the production of cheap, dangerous textiles made from fossil fuel.

Building A Sustainable Future

Now is the time to focus on revitalising and relearning native practices like Kapa making, that may bring environmentally sustainable changes to many countries and cultures, not just in Hawai‘i.

If we compare the established colonial textile industry to my own small, contemporary Native Hawaiian Kapa textile practice, we see a stark contrast.   My Kapa practice is a subsistence farming lifestyle.  It is a practice of sustainability, of physical movement, of experimentation, of cultivation, of propagation and fertilisation, of creativity, and most of all, of living in balance with the seasons and cycles of nature.  Although Kapa making is labour intensive and is not “practical” for all our textile needs, it is a model that I believe can move modern textile production into a healthier future.  If we choose to build on the Kapa research of our Ancestors, and the success they enjoyed for thousands of years here in Hawaii, what discoveries could be made or brilliant inventions created around the practice and the use of Wauke and all the other lau (the plants) involved.  From my personal experience, I have learned that if we reconnect with and re-build our unique local natural environments that support these plants, resources, and practices, we also continue to grow and thrive in a constant state of creativity and discovery. There is an ‘Ōlelo Nō‘eau, a Hawaiian proverb, He Ali'i Ka 'Āina; He Kauwā ke Kanaka-The Land is chief, the people the servant, meaning that if we take care of the land, the land takes care of us.

Everything in my practice comes from my ‘āina (land), all natural, all organic, all sustainable.  As I cultivate my trees, I learn about the ecosystems that are created and thrive or die under specific circumstances.  I learn about healthy soil and microorganisms.  I learn about different species of Wauke and the growing habits and needs of each variety.  I understand the seasons, and the moon cycles for planting and harvesting.  As I process my Wauke trees into Kapa, I learn about biology, and fibres.  I learn about natural glues and sugars that are contained in my Wauke.  I learn about the magic of water to promote life in fermentation and the extraction of pigments.  I learn about the chemical and physical changes that occur in nature.  I learn that every part of my plant has a use; there is no waste.  I learn to dream and wonder and experiment with my plants, the fibres, the skin, the stalks, the leaves, even the fermented Wauke water.   I learn to be focused and patient.  I learn that each step is a small part, and no step forward is possible without the previous one.  I learn that if I donʻt take care of my Māla(garden), and my trees - my practice will fail. 

If everyone incorporated any of the unique Native practices specific to their location, practices which were painstakingly developed over millennia, there would be a shifting of environmental consciousness that would surely be of global benefit. 

We have forgotten that we share the worldʻs resources. We have forgotten to cultivate and treasure our natural resources.  We have forgotten that we are inextricably intertwined with and composed of the elements of the natural world.

I believe that through Native practices, which are based on working with and cherishing the natural world, we can find balance.  We can find  balance with the ‘Āina and all that she has to offer.  We can find balance in the community, working together to live in sufficiency and sustainability.  We can find balance in ourselves as we regularly, rhythmically tend to the many tasks involved in our life practices.

This piece of Kapa, Object # 1886.1.1214.1, represents the possibility of a better, different world than the one we now occupy, the one we were meant to inherit and must fight to reclaim.

As a Kapa maker, the rhythmic tapping of my I‘e Kuku is the call to fight.



Pitt Rivers Museum Object 1886.1.1214

Barkcloth, Hawaii, collected in 1886. 

Place details:  Hawaiian Islands.  Local Name:  Kapa.  Materials:  Wauke tree (Broussonetia Papyrifera).  Field Collector:  Frederick William Beechey.  When Collected:  1825-1828