Making Tapa

Tongan woman removing the inner bark of a mulberry tree. Photo by Adrienne L. Kaeppler.

The process of creating tapa varies from island to island, but an overview of its basic elements, which are consistent across cultures, can provide an understanding of the kind of materials, tools, and labor that are involved in its creation.

Tongan woman beating inner bark of a mulberry tree with a <i>tapa</i> beater. Photo by Adrienne L. Kaeppler.

The production of tapa in Polynesia begins by harvesting trees for their inner bark. The paper mulberry tree is the preferred species of tree and produces a finer cloth, but the breadfruit and fig tree can also be used. Once harvested, the outer bark of the tree is separated from the inner bark, and the inner bark is treated with water to soften the fibers that are then rolled together for storage.[1]

A group of Tongan women using a rub­bing tech­nique to apply a de­sign on to the un­a­dorned pieces of bark­cloth. During this time the women trade stories and the latest gossip. Photo by Adrienne L. Kaeppler.

The dried pieces of bark are then repeatedly beaten against a pounding board with club-like tapa beaters, most often made of ironwood.[2] The pieces are then either pasted together using arrowroot (a technique characteristic of western Polynesia), or they are continually beaten together in a process called felting, characteristic of eastern Polynesia. Felting is a technique in which the barkcloth fibers are soaked in sea water and then matted and condensed, combining the pieces into a long, plain sheet. At this stage, the tapa is ready for dyeing and the application of painted designs. [3] Methods of stamping, stenciling, or freehand painting can vary from region to region and can be executed in a variety of colors, most commonly brown, black, orange, or red.[4] Broader designs are first applied using one of these techniques, and then hand-painted details may be added on top for darker, more distinguished marks.[5] The final result displays a variety of repeated motifs forming complex patterning across the barkcloth, which can stretch to over 300 feet long.[6]

Kate Robinson

[1] Roger Neich and Mick Pendergrast, Pacific Tapa (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 1997), 13.

[2] Adrienne Kaeppler, “Polynesian Barkcloth: An 18th Century Technology in the 21st Century” (presentation, Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington, In, January 17, 2013).

[3] Roger Neich and Mick Pendergrast, Pacific Tapa (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 1997), 13, 41.

[4] "Barkcloth Panel (Masi Kesa) [Naitauba, Lau Islands, Fiji] (1977.395.5)," in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–), (accessed 3/3/13); Roger Neich and Mick Pendergrast, Pacific Tapa (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 1997), 14.

[5] Adrienne L. Kaeppler, “Melody, Drone, and Decoration: Underlying Structures and Surface Manifestations in Tongan Art and Society,” Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas: Selected Readings, edited by Janet Catherine Berlo and Lee Anne Wilson (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993), 40–41.

[6] Keith St. Cartmail, The Art of Tonga (Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997), 86–87.