Kapa (Hawaiian barkcloth) was the ubiquitous fabric of historic Hawaiʻi, used for everything from clothing to bedding, from swaddling newborns to enshrouding the deceased, and all things in between. This textile is crafted from the bast (inner bark) of several plant species, most notably wauke (paper mulberry tree, Broussonetia papyrifera). The laborious process involves harvesting an adequate number of trees, scraping off the outer bark, stripping the bast from the heartwood, and retting the bast in both salt water and fresh water for several days. Once the bast is adequately softened, it is beaten on a large, flat kua pōhaku (rock) using a rounded wooden beater called a hohoa to make moʻomoʻo, which is a precursor to kapa. Several sheets of moʻomoʻo are laid on top one another on a kua lāʻau (wood anvil) and felted together by beating with an iʻe kuku (grooved wooden beater). Once the resulting fabric is deemed completed, it is dried, smoothed, and finally decorated with plant dyes and earth pigments.
Waves of European and American merchants in the late 18th and early 19th centuries brought countless items to the islands, including cotton and linen textiles. As these fabrics were adopted, the practice of making kapa rapidly ceased. It is estimated that by the late 19th century few, if any, active kapa practitioners remained. In 1870, Samuel Kamakau lamented, “All are dead who knew how to make coverings… and adornments… that made the wearers look dignified and proud and distinguished” (Kamakau, 1976, p.116).
Beginning in the mid-20th century, a few pioneering Hawaiian women became interested in reviving this traditional craft. Their work towards achieving this goal involved studying historic kapa housed in such places as the Bishop Museum, visiting neighboring Pacific island communities where barkcloth is still manufactured, poring over historic texts, and countless hours of experimentation. Thanks to the efforts of Puanani Van Dorpe, Malia Solomon, Marie McDonald, and others, kapa-making has enjoyed a comeback with continuously growing interest. I have been fortunate to be a haumāna (student) of kapa since 2017, under the tutelage of my kumu (mentor) Roen Hufford.
I am especially interested in the historic written records of kapa production. Though a select few, these texts provide key insight into the terminology, tools, and processing methods significant in kapa manufacture. Notable among these sources is “Na Hana a ka Poʻe Kahiko,” a compilation of newspaper articles written by the celebrated Hawaiian scholar and historian Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau between 1869 and 1870. In a chapter dedicated to kapa (referred to as “tapa” in the printed book) Kamakau discusses several different varieties of kapa. For this paper, I chose to recreate a variety referred to as kaha, in part due to Kamakau's detailed account of how this variety was produced.
Kaha was used as a kilohana, or decorated top sheet, of a kuʻina kapa, or bedspread. According to Kamakau, making kapa kaha involved three main stages: first, dyeing the bast with hili (“juice from the bark of a tree”); second, submerging the bast in lepo (mud); and third, dyeing the bast with the indigenous palaʻā fern (Kamakau, 1976, p.111). In the following sections, I recount my experiment in making a kapa kaha in detail.
Step 1: Dyeing with Hili Kukui
The first step of making a kapa kaha requires previously soaked wauke bast to be “daubed with hili” and allowed to dry (Kamakau, 1976, p.111). I was immediately struck by the fact that Kamakau does not mention the bast first being beaten into moʻomoʻo prior to dyeing. Modern-day kapa makers usually beat soaked bast prior to any dyeing activities. The act of beating the bast allows the fibers to spread, making them more receptive to colorant penetration. It is possible that Samuel Kamakau may have glossed over this initial step. Applying my knowledge to this situation, I chose to use moʻomoʻo (once-beaten bast, pre-kapa) for this stage.
Kamakau simply refers to the dye material as “hili,” which is defined as: “bark used in dyeing, as hili kukui, hili kōlea, hili noni” (Pukui and Elbert, 1986, p.175). Kukui, kōlea, and noni are three different tree species found in the islands. I chose to work with the bark of kukui (candlenut, Aleurites moluccanus), a Polynesian-introduced tree that is commonly seen in both cultivated landscapes and wild spaces.
Historically, the outer bark of the kukui tree would have been harvested using a koʻi (stone adze) or a similar tool. For the sake of simplicity, I used a modern metal hatchet and carefully chipped about two cups of bark material from several kukui trees.
Hili kukui could be made using the inner bark of either the trunk or roots of the kukui tree (Krauss, 1993, p.66). The dye was prepared by pounding the bark and mixing it with water (Handy, et al., 1972, p.231). This activity would likely have been executed using a mortar and pestle, both made of stone (Krauss, 1993, p.67). I decided to use a pōhaku kuʻi ʻai (basalt stone pounder weighing 2 to 3 pounds, used for making poi, a staple starchy food), which I made several years ago, to pound the bark. For ease of retaining the dye liquid, I performed this activity in a stainless-steel pot (See Figure 1).
I have worked with hili kukui in the past, extracting the rich tannins from the bark by simmering in water on the stove for several hours. Within the first few minutes of pounding the bark, I had a much richer, more concentrated dye than modern methods had previously achieved. Every few minutes, I added a bit more water as the bark gradually broke down. Within a half hour, I had just over a cup of red dye (See Figure 2). I applied this dye to three separate sheets of dry moʻomoʻo. This was done using a hala brush, a paintbrush I made by scraping the waxy outer layer from a ripe hala (Pandanus tectorius) fruit, revealing brush-like inner fibers. These brushes were traditionally made either by actively scraping or by allowing the ripe fruits to naturally decay until the fibers were exposed (Buck, 1957, p.190; Krauss, 1993, p.69). I soon discovered I had watered down the hili kukui more than anticipated. Hili kukui should result in a brown or reddish-brown dye (Abbott, 1992, p.57; Handy, et al., 1972, p.231; Krauss, 1993, p.66), and the color I achieved was very light on the moʻomoʻo (See Figure 3). After a day of drying, I applied a second coat of hili kukui to each sheet of moʻomoʻo. The resulting color was a rosy brown on two of the sheets, and a dusky reddish-brown on the third (See Figure 4). The differences in color can be attributed to differing degrees of absorption by each moʻomoʻo, as there can be variability from one material source to another.
Step 2: Immersion in Lepo (Mud)
In the second stage of making a kapa kaha, the dyed, dried bast is immersed in lepo, or mud (Kamakau, 1976, p.111). Kamakau provides no specifics on this step, in terms of location or duration of immersion. During a trip to Oʻahu in 1834, biologist Frederick Debell Bennett briefly recorded several kapa dyestuffs, noting, “a peculiar dull-gray, or slate colour, is also produced, by immersing the cloth in the black mud of the taro fields” (Brigham, 1911, p.50). Communicating with other kapa makers, the consensus is that kalo (taro, Colocasia esculenta) fields, known as loʻi kalo, are the preferred location for mud immersion. As for duration, the time spent soaking probably varied from place to place, season to season, and would have depended on the personal preference of the kapa-maker. Most of my mentors agree that one to three days is usually adequate (Roen Hufford and Mary Sakamoto, personal communication).
Due to restrictions owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was unable to visit any loʻi kalo on island. Fortunately, my friends with Hui Aloha Kīholo and The Nature Conservancy were happy to provide me with a bucket of rich, black lepo from the loko iʻa (fishpond) at Kīholo. I soaked the three sheets of moʻomoʻo in the lepo for just over two days. Upon removal, the moʻomoʻo were coated in mud and smelled almost sulfuric due to the anaerobic environment. After gently rinsing off the superficial layer of mud, their color proved to be grey, suggesting they had truly taken up color from their immersion (See Figure 5).
It is worth noting here an observation of William T. Brigham, that the “double dyeing with hili... and then with iron-saturated mud” is a mordanting process wherein the tannins of the hili interact with the salts (and tannins from decomposing plant matter) in the mud (Brigham, 1911, p.173). This ingenious technique would have made for a more permanent color than if only one or the other dye method was used alone.
Step 3: Dyeing with Palaʻā Fern
In the third and final dye stage of making a kapa kaha, the bast is “balled up and put into a container with palaʻā fern and left for a long time” (Kamakau, 1976, p.111). Palaʻā (Hawaiian lace fern, Sphenomeris chinensis), an indigenous fern, is noted for producing red to brown colors, often dark in hue (Brigham, 1911, p.219; Krauss, 1993, p.66). According to notable Hawaiian historian David Malo, palaʻā dye was traditionally prepared by baking the fronds (often with the kapa material that was to be dyed) in an imu, or underground oven (Malo and Emerson, 1903, p.74). Kamakau’s mention of a “container” is therefore confusing, as there appear to be no other written sources detailing the use of vessels for dyeing with palaʻā.
If a container was in fact used, is almost certainly would have been a wooden calabash bowl. Wooden bowls, generally referred to as ʻumeke, were not an uncommon item in historic Hawaiʻi. These vessels were crafted out of various woods and could be very large in size (Krauss, 1993, pp.22-23). Various types of ʻumeke existed for a variety of utilitarian purposes, from holding foodstuffs to storing everyday items. There is a mention of ʻumeke holding liquid dyes (Brigham, 1911, p.219), but this does not answer the question of how the palaʻā dye was processed for coloring kapa kaha.
Unfortunately, I was unable to test cooking palaʻā in an imu due to quarantine restrictions which limited my ability to interact with the few acquaintances I know who have imu. Instead, I took a very modern approach to this final dyeing step. For the past several months, my kumu Roen had allowed dried palaʻā ferns to ret in water in a 5-gallon plastic bucket. In that time, the water had turned a rich red color. I took about a gallon of this dye liquid home in a bucket and, after gently rinsing the moʻomoʻo from their mud immersion, placed them into the palaʻā bath (See Figure 6).
Kamakau cryptically says that the bast soaked “for a long time.” Uncertain as to just how long would be long enough, I decided to try eight days of submersion. Upon removal, I was pleasantly surprised at their appearance. Kamakau states that the bast turns dark after this procedure, and indeed, each moʻomoʻo had turned a dark coppery-brown (See Figure 7). After thoroughly rinsing and scraping them, they were ready to be beaten into a finished kapa.
Final Kapa Kaha
To transform the dyed bast into kapa, I layered the three sheets atop one another and beat them together using an iʻe kuku (grooved wooden beater). Kamakau does not explicitly state that the bast was layered to make kapa kaha; this is how I was taught to make kapa, and I therefore drew upon my own knowledge for this final step. My general method of making kapa involves taking two to four moʻomoʻo, moistening them, laying them perfectly stacked atop one another on a kua lāʻau (wood anvil), and beating them into a single kapa (See Figure 8). This action is performed by striking the material with the iʻe kuku, the grooves pierce and felt the wet fibers together while simultaneously spreading them horizontally. This action results in a finished product that is wider than the starting material, though the length does not change.
Kamakau does mention that to lengthen a kapa kaha, “one piece was united to the end of another by beating the sections together” (Kamakau, 1976, p.111). Given the small amount of bast I had on hand, I chose instead to simply beat one single example sheet, rather than making and connecting multiple kapa.
I laid the finished kapa on a table and weighed the edges with stones to dry. Kamakau mentions that the dried kapa kaha was “gently beaten until nice and shiny” (Kamakau, 1976, p.111). I performed this action with the mole (flat, uncarved) side of my iʻe kuku. For extra smoothness, I rubbed a large cowry shell across the surface of the kapa. Together, these actions softened the fabric and gave it a polished look. The final kapa kaha measures 31 cm x 76 cm (12 in x 30 in) and is a dark reddish-brown color (See Figures 9 and 10).
Overall, I felt this experiment was a success. Following Samuel Kamakau’s explanation, I was able to recreate a kapa kaha and in doing so learned more about the ingenuity behind the processes involved. However, I did encounter several challenges which I explore below.
It is important to note that I was relying on an English translation of “Na Hana a ka Poʻe Kahiko” for my source material. Kamakau’s writings were originally published in a series of articles by the nupepa (newspaper) Ke Au ʻOkoʻa between 1869 and 1870. These publications were translated in 1934 by scholar Mary Kawena Pukui and ethnographer Martha Beckwith. Though I do not doubt the care taken by these esteemed women in faithfully translating this work, there is always the chance for a second opinion or fresh interpretation of the original text. This would require improvement on my skills in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language) or the aid of a fluent reader. I feel it would be well worth the effort to understand Kamakau’s description in his own words. It bears mentioning that, to the best of my knowledge, Kamakau himself was not a kapa maker. The knowledge preserved in his writings is invaluable, though certain facts may have been abbreviated or omitted altogether due to limitations in written space, time spent recording such information, and Kamakau’s own understanding.
Although Kamakau never refers to the bast as being beaten prior to the dye processes, I chose to use beaten moʻomoʻo for this experiment. In my experience, beating the bast prior to dyeing allows the fibers to take up and retain more color. However, it would be interesting to attempt this experiment again with soaked, unbeaten bast, to determine whether there is a difference in the appearance of the finished product.
There were moments when I had to rely on modern tools to execute certain steps, such as using a stainless-steel pot while processing the hili kukui and plastic buckets for both the lepo and palaʻā dye. In the future, I feel it would be more appropriate to use materials that would have been available in historic Hawaiʻi (e.g. a stone mortar or ʻumeke in place of the stainless-steel pot). The COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine restrictions stymied my access to a loʻi kalo or loko iʻa for in situ mud immersion. While I am extremely grateful to my friends who brought me mud from Kīholo, I am left wondering whether immersing the bast in a more dynamic outdoor setting might yield different results.
Of the three dye steps outlined, the palaʻā dye presented the greatest uncertainty. David Malo’s text and modern kapa makers suggest this dye was usually prepared by cooking the fronds in an imu, yet nowhere does Kamakau mention this technique. His explanation of placing the bast in a “container” with the palaʻā fern remains baffling. Was the palaʻā first prepared in an imu and then removed to an ʻumeke or similar vessel? If so, how did it impart color to the balled-up bast that was placed within? Was it instead prepared by retting the fronds in water inside the container, in a manner similar to how my kumu has prepared palaʻā in plastic buckets? Additionally, Kamakau is not explicit on the amount of time recommended for leaving the bast in the dye. I chose eight days, which yielded a nice, dark color, but I wonder how much darker it may have been had I doubled or even tripled that time. Further experimentation with palaʻā dye is required to answer these lingering questions.
Kapa kaha was used as a kilohana, or decorated top covering, of a kuʻina kapa, sleeping kapa. These bedspreads would have been large enough to cover a sleeping person, measuring upwards of 2.5 meters in both length and width. Due to time and resource limitations, I only made a single example sheet measuring 31 cm x 76 cm. I would like to make several sheets similar in size and, as per Kamakau’s description, felt these together at the edges to create a single large kapa. To make a true kuʻina kapa would involve making four more undyed kapa, each matching the finished kapa kaha in size, and stitching the whole together at one end – a truly laborious undertaking, which would take several weeks, possibly even a couple of months!
Ultimately, this experiment allowed me to gain an in-depth appreciation for the many actions needed to create this type of kapa. From initial wauke harvest to processing each of the dye materials, to beating the completed fabric, a great amount of forethought and planning would have been necessary to create a large, attractive kapa kaha. Much trial and error undoubtedly occurred before perfecting the dye stages. The combination of tannins in both the hili kukui and palaʻā dye and the various elements found in the lepo work together to produce a rich, beautiful color. Making this kapa was a humbling experience, a potent reminder that the kapa makers of old were skilled crafters who poured both body and soul into their creations. Experimental work such as this is vital in keeping alive such knowledge and skills.
Sincerest mahalo nui loa to my kumu Roen Hufford for generously teaching me over the years (and for providing the palaʻā dye), my friends at the Donkey Mill Art Center for allowing me to harvest kukui bark, and my friends with The Nature Conservancy and Hui Aloha Kīholo for providing me with lepo from the loko iʻa. ʻAʻohe hana nui ke alu ʻia. It takes a community to perpetuate the life of this land so that this ʻike may persist into the future.
Abbott, I. A., 1992. Lā'au Hawai'i: traditional Hawaiian uses of plants. Honolulu, HI, Bishop Museum Press.
Brigham, W., 1911. Ka hana kapa, the making of bark-cloth in Hawaii (Memoirs of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum of Polynesian Ethnology and Natural History; v. 3). Honolulu, HI, Bishop Museum Press.
Buck, P. H., 1957. Arts and crafts of Hawaii. Honolulu, HI, Bishop Museum Press.
Handy, E.S.C., Handy, E.G. and Pukui, M. K., 1972. Native planters in old Hawaii: their life, lore, and environment. Honolulu, HI, Bishop Museum Press.
Kamakau, S. M., 1976. The works of the people of old = Na hana a ka poʻe kahiko. Honolulu, HI, Bishop Museum Press.
Krauss, B. H., 1993. Plants in Hawaiian culture. Honolulu, HI, University of Hawaii Press.
Malo, D. and Emerson, N. B., 1903. Hawaiian antiquities = Moʻolelo Hawaii. Honolulu, HI, Hawaiian Gazette Co.
Pukui, M. K. and Elbert, S. H., 1986. Hawaiian dictionary: Hawaiian-English, English-Hawaiian. Honolulu, HI, University of Hawaii Press.
Hili: tannin-rich dye obtained from the bark of several tree species. In this experiment, I used hili kukui (obtained from the bark of the kukui tree, Aleurites moluccanus).
Hohoa: rounded wood beater, used during the initial stage of preparing wauke bast to make kapa.
Iʻe kuku: four-sided wood beater, used to beat and felt bast fibers together into kapa.
Imu: an underground earth oven, most commonly used to cook food, though also used to prepare certain dye materials.
Kaha: a type of kapa described by Samuel Kamakau as being used to make kuʻina kapa, a bedspread. This type of kapa is the main focus of this experimental study.
Kapa: Hawaiian barkcloth, made using the bast (inner phloem) of certain tree species, with wauke (Broussontia papyrifera, paper mulberry) being the most common species used in Hawaiʻi.
Kilohana: decorated top sheet of a kuʻina kapa (bedspread kapa).
Kua lāʻau: wood anvil upon which kapa is beaten.
Kua pōhaku: flat rock used as an anvil in the initial stage of beating kapa.
Kuʻina kapa: a bedspread consisting of a kilohana (top sheet of decorated kapa) and several undersheets of undyed kapa.
Kumu: mentor or teacher.
Lepo: soil, dirt, mud. Used for dyeing kapa kaha.
Moʻomoʻo: bast that has been soaked and beaten once, but not yet turned into kapa; essentially, a precursor to kapa.
Palaʻā: Hawaiian lace fern (Sphenomerous chinensis), a fern indigenous to Hawaiʻi, used for dye.
Pōhaku kuʻi ʻai: stone pounder used to make poi, a common starchy food made by pounding the corm of the kalo (taro, Colocasia esculenta) plant.
Tapa: Tahitian word for barkcloth, now the most commonly recognized word for Pacific barkcloth in general.
ʻUmeke: wooden calabash most commonly used for storing food or items, though also used to contain liquid dyes.
Wauke: Broussonetia papyrifera, paper mulberry tree, the bast of which is used to make kapa.