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Tapa Cloth:  Tapa: [Specimen 15]“Tapa,” the Polynesian word for bark cloth, was produced by early civilizations in a multitude of textures, striking colors, and patterns. In Hawaii this substance was known as kapa, “the beaten thing,” referring to a stage in tapa production. During the1820s Christian missionaries, working with explorers and naturalists, traveled to the South Pacific and were responsible for collecting and preserving many of the early examples of tapa cloth that are currently in private or institutional collections. Fewer than forty assembled tapa volumes are believed to be in existence today. The Boston Athenæum’s volume consists of sheets of vividly patterned designs and varying textures. It was most likely bound for the Library by either John Guardenier or Josiah Loring of Boston between 1815 and 1820.


The unique craft of tapa making is primarily associated with the Hawaiian and Polynesian Islands, including those of Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, and Tonga. Historians estimate that the ancient practice of producing bark cloth and paper began in Asia about 4300 BC and later influenced the creation of the true papermaking process developed by the Chinese around 200 BC. The method for producing tapa varied slightly among the assorted island communities, although the fundamental techniques followed common procedures. Production initially began with the removal of the rough outer bark from the trunk or branches of one of several indigenous trees, exposing the soft and pliable inner bark. This inner surface was then peeled away from the center woody core and scraped clean, using a knife or shell implement. While the central bark was still moist, the island craftsmen hammered it with a club-like tool made of wood or ivory until the surface obtained the desired shape and size. They then left the tapa out in the sun to dry.


Several conditions determined the quality, texture, color, and design of the final product. The ultimate use of the bark paper or cloth would be of paramount concern. Naturally, tapa that was to be used for clothing or bedding would necessitate a soft, pliable surface. Conversely, the substance destined for writing paper needed to be smooth and substantial. Coarser textures were acceptable for decorative items, ceremonial masks, costumes, and wall hangings.


A variety of tree species was utilized to produce tapa. Availability occasionally dictated the choice, but islanders also cultivated several species for the specific purpose of producing bark cloth. Mulberry trees produced the finest tapa, but fig, breadfruit, and banyan trees were also used. Native workers kept the nurtured tree small in size, and as the tree grew, the planters cut off the side branches, leaving a straight trunk stalk without branch holes. These cultivated trees offered a superior tapa with fewer holes and imperfections. Wauke, the paper mulberry tree of Hawaii, yielded a high-quality cloth that was prized for its warmth, water resistance, long life, softness, and flexibility.   Other cultures grew specific trees for the exclusive use of the “royal court.” Pa’u, a type of skirt worn by noble Hawaiian women, was fashioned out of a single piece of bark cloth, 3.5 or 4.5 meters long. Kamamalu, the favorite wife of King Kamehameha II, wore a pa’u that was so long that she had to lie on the ground and roll herself up into it.


Before beating and stretching the bark into its ultimate shape, it might be soaked in fresh or salt water, a process that broke down the woody fibers and filtered away the starches contained in the bark in order to make the tapa smoother and more pliable. Thus the beauty of the surface of the tapa was entirely dependent on the way it had been stretched, handled, and beaten. During the beating process a watermark-like pattern could be imprinted into the fabric. The wooden club used for beating the fabric was typically carved on all four of its sides with intricate geometric designs, many of which had symbolic or religious meaning. Depending on the skill of the craftsman, the finished fabric might be quite sheer and have a delicate web-like design that was visible when held up to the light.   The Boston Athenæum’s tapa book has several examples of this delicately patterned cloth. One panel, dyed a pale peach color, has a diamond-shaped watermark. Another cream-colored panel has a lace-like quality; finely compressed until it became quite sheer, it also has an extremely soft texture.


The tapa fabric’s color varied from a natural milky white, usually associated with the bark from the mulberry tree, to shades of cream and hues of dark yellow or reddish-brown. Vegetable dyes were used to ornament the finished surface, but pigmentation was often introduced before decoration. Craftsmen might bury the cloth in mud for several weeks to produce a dark brown or black fabric, or soak the bark in oil from castor beans or roll the bark in banana leaves to absorb color and moisture. Indigenous plant dyes routinely used to decorate the fabric included amaryllis root for yellow, tucum palm leaves for green, genipapo juice for blue or black, and annato seeds for red. To create patterns, craftsmen drew freehand, using bamboo printing sticks or pandanus seed brushes.   The use of geometrically carved wooden or bamboo block stamps resulted in dramatic patterns that provided a depth and dimension similar to intricately woven Oriental rugs. In some cultures, bits of flowers, feathers, shells, or seeds adorned the finished product.


The art of creating bark cloth began to diminish during the mid-1850s, as western fabrics were introduced to island communities. Also influencing this decline in production were the perishable nature of the organic fibers, extreme climate conditions, insects, and lack of preservation methods, all of which contributed to the inability of tapa to survive.


Tapa samples in the Athenæum’s specimen album contain numerous design patterns and colors. Many of the samples display rich, bold hues of brick reds and deep blacks.  Happily, the colors have remained vivid. Designs vary in the collection from a simple alternating pattern of wide and narrow stripes to those containing more ornate patterns. The carefully detailed sample in the illustration is unique for its intricately shaded feather-like motif, and its central pattern, composed of points and arrows, forms a rosette-like design. The rose-tinted colors evident in this cloth are also highly unusual. With only a few basic design forms, including points, diamonds, triangles, and undulating lines and chevrons, ancient craftsmen were able to create varieties of tapa that still resonate with modern tastes.


Jayne E. Giudici
Cataloger – Technical Services

1. While the Athenæum’s tapa album contains no text, information on the topic can be found in Specimens of Hawaiian Kapa: Assembled from Various Institutions and Private Collections (San Francisco: Andrew Hoyem, 1979), compiled by D. R. Severson who is a collector of tapa.
2. Ibid.
3.  The aforementioned missionary travelers forwarded many samples home to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, located in Boston. These samples ultimately formed part of a collection that was held by Amherst College in Massachusetts and was subsequently sold to an antiquarian book dealer.
4  Lilian A. Bell, Papyrus, Tapa, Amate, & Rice Paper: Papermaking in Africa, the Pacific, Latin America, & Southeast Asia (2nd rev. ed.; McMinnville, Oregon: Liliaceae Press, 1985), 63.
5.  Ibid., 39-74.
6.  Lynton Dove White, Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawaii (Waitsfield, Vermont: Dove White, 2003).  Also see the internet site
7.  Anne Leonard and John Terrell, Patterns of Paradise: The Styles and Significance of Bark Cloth Around the World (Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1980), 25.
8.  White, Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawaii.



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