The ancient Hawaiians made a material called kapa from wauke, the paper mulberry plant. Many hours were spent growing, harvesting, and preparing the material that eventually would be made into bark cloth. Generally speaking, making kapa was regarded as women's work.

After cutting the plant, the women would scrape away the stalk's brown and green layers, leaving the fine, white layer below. Called  bast, the material was soaked for as many as ten days.

Afterwards, it was beaten with a mallet and then left to ferment in ti or banana leaves. Once the fermentation process was complete, more beating and shaping of the fibers were required to make it usable.

Small Tapa Example Dyeing was done with natural materials, and finally, abstract designs were added to the surface of the cloth using methods such as stamping and embossing. Although other Pacific cultures made kapa, that made by Hawaiians was finer in texture and decorated with bold colors.

Also known as tapa, the material was very versatile. Bedding, floor coverings, room dividers,and even burial shrouds were made of it. Also, bark cloth was commonly used for clothing. A woman wore a dress called pa'u. Measuring about 3' by 9', it was wrapped around the body and tucked in to keep it in place. A Hawaiian man wore a loincloth called malo.

By the late 1800s, kapa making had become a lost art, as most Hawaiians gave it up and began using cotton like that brought by the missionaries. When the tourist trade picked up in the 1920s, a coarser, brown kapa became popular. Used for journal covers and souvenirs, this type was more like Samoan or Fijian kapa instead of the white, Hawaiian bark cloth.

We can reuse materials to create something similar to the Samoan or Fijian kapa. Doing so will help save money, natural resources, energy, and landfill space. After you've created your  bark cloth, use the material to cover an accordion book or other useful item.  Students in Hawai'i schools are creating Statehood time capsules, so the kapa also can be used to cover containers that will hold commemorative items. 

You will need:

How to:

Large Tapa Example It will be necessary to work with the brown bag to make it similar in texture to kapa. Cut a piece of paper measuring at least 6 x 9 from the sack. Wad it into a ball and smooth it out. Repeat these steps at least twenty times in order to soften the bag. To make it easier to work with, press the paper with a warm iron.

We'll use scrap mat board and polystyrene trays to make stamps for printing. Wash and dry the tray, and cut it into a few small squares and rectangles. Use a dull pencil to draw lines and/or designs in some of the material. Cut mat board scraps into pieces that measure about 1 by 4 .

Ink the edge of the mat board by pressing it onto the stamp pad, and make lines on the paper, as shown. Use small pieces from the polystyrene tray to print squares and geometric designs on the kapa. Roll masking tape into a ring, and attach it to the back of the material to make a  handle.

Fill the paper with designs, and hang to display. If you prefer, use the material to make covers for the accordion book described in Fold an Accordion Book shown here.

Tips and Tricks:

Try decorating or painting your kapa with natural materials such as coffee, beet, or blueberry juice.

Instead of using printmaking to decorate your kapa, color the designs with crayons.

Historical information regarding kapa came from the following sites. Visit them for photos of kapa and more detailed information about the Hawaiian bark cloth:

Local Legacies at the Library of Congress

Spirit of

Tapa: The Fabric of Hawai'i

The History and Craft behind Kapa

Hina's Kapa
Creasing styrofoam piece with a pencil Finished design in the foam square Put tape on the back to create a handle Stamping a design A border made of squares Inking the edge of a matboard scrap Stamping with a mat board edge Partially finished design