Sunday, December 11, 2011

Kapa and the Hawaiian Renaissance

Kapa Loincloth, Photo: Oliver Koning
Vol. 14, no.2 April/May 2011

For centuries, from the day of they they were born until they were wrapped in their shrouds, native Hawaiians wrapped themselves in kapa, a cloth made from pounding the white inner bark of the wauke (mulberry) plant in a labor intensive felting process. Not a native plant of the Hawaiian islands wauke is thought to be a "canoe plant" brought to the islands sometime between 300 and 600 A.D. when the islands were first settled. Having no nutritional or medicinal value it seems clear that the value of the wauke plant lay in its use as a fiber source used in everything from clothing and bedding to ritual adornment.

 I'e kuku ho'oki - flat-sided hardwood beaters, Photo: Dana Edmunds
Vol. 14, no.6 Dec 2011/Jan 2012

Over time the art of making and decorating kapa in Hawaii became a highly refined art and yet, as culturally significant as kapa was it very nearly was lost forever. Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau proclaimed in 1870, "All are dead who knew how to make coverings and loincloths and skirts and adornments and all that made the wearers look dignified and proud and distinguished." When the era of sailing ships turned Hawaii into a global trade center almost overnight Hawaiians were introduced to cotton from Europe and America and silk from China and Japan. Missionaries exerted their influence and taught Hawaiian women how to sew in the western style. Making kapa is incredibly laborious, that fact plus the pressure to assimilate put the fate of Hawaiian kapa into extreme peril.

It was not until the 1960s and 70s that Hawaiians finally were able to begin reclaiming some nearly lost parts of their rich cultural heritage. Pioneers in the Hawaiian cultural renaissance like Malia Solomon were able to retrace the original development of the art of kapa by learning from women in Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa where the traditions were still being passed down mother to daughter. Then they took their microscopes to Hawaii's Bishop Museum to examine historic Hawaiian kapa pieces until they were finally able to reconstruct the processes used by their ancestors. Using uniquely Hawaiian methods of soaking and fermenting wauke fibers, Hawaii's kapa makers achieved finer textures and more sophisticated patterning than their South Pacific predecessors.

Kapa Hawaii: The Art of Native Hawaiian Kapa
Hana Hou: The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines


  1. After all my years of weaving and investigations of Asian textiles, this was completely new info for me. So glad you posted it - thanks!

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  3. Thank you for posting. This is a kind of cool arts. Art is very overwhelming.
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