History in the Making

Revitalizing the Ancient Art of Creating Fabric for Hula from Start to Finish


It’s a Sunday afternoon in the sleepy town of Waimea. The green and verdant pasturelands dance in the cool breeze while heavy clouds blanket the majestic mountain of Mauna Kea. A typical day for the small Big Island town, yet, there’s something not so typical happening in the backyard of one local home. A group of family and friends, who in essence regard themselves as one big ʻohana (family), are embarking on a journey that has been dormant in Hawaiian history for well over 200 years. Harmonious chants fill the air while time passes with measured beats from wooden implements. It’s not a hula performance, a musical display, or any sort of entertainment. They are creating an ancient art that has been lost for centuries. They are making kapa.

Kapa or tapa is known throughout Polynesia as a type of cloth that is made from beating together the fibrous bark from trees. Prior to the arrival of foreign influence, kapa was the only source of fabric found in the islands. It was the Hawaiians who had mastered the art, creating quality fabrics that were superior to all others. In old Hawai‘i, kapa was essential to everyday life—used as clothing, blankets, canoe sails, and even as décor for high ruling aliʻi (royalty). That is until the early 1800s when the arrival of steamboats and trade changed many of Hawaiʻi’s practices. With the introduction of new fabrics, there was no longer a need for the bark cloth; and by the 1820s, kapa had become a thing of the past.

Move forward a few centuries and meet Micah Kamohoaliʻi, director and kumu (teacher) of Hālau Nā Kīpuʻupuʻu, a traditional Hawaiian school for learning. His class is comprised of men and women who study and immerse themselves in the cultural practices of old Hawai‘i. From dancing hula, to learning lua (a sacred form of Hawaiian martial arts), the hālau is perpetuating many aspects of island culture that have been depleted over several generations. This was the case with their latest venture.

“The idea came from friends, Johni Mae Makuakane and Kauhane Heloca, both who are true ʻkapa people,’” says Kamohoaliʻi. He explains that in old Hawai‘i, it was the responsibility of the dancer to make all of their clothing and adornments. The energy from hard work, blood, sweat, and tears would be put into the creation and therefore these items were powerful and sacred to the dancer. “He mana ko lole,” simply meaning, “there is power in the clothing.” Since the mid-1900s, there have been individuals who have mastered the craft of kapa making like all-time pioneers Malia Solomon and Jenny Wilson, both ladies being first cousins to Kamohoaliʻi’s grandmother. However, there has never been a hālau that practiced the entire kapa making process from start to finish—like in the old Hawaiian schools. Hālau Nā Kīpuʻupuʻu was about to change history by completing this endeavor.

“When our hālau set off to do this project, I vowed that we were going to do everything traditionally. It was all or nothing,” says Kamohoali­ʻi. Two men and eight women from the hālau participated in the project that took a total of 12 weeks to complete, with kapa pounding done only on Sundays.  The first few classes were strictly dedicated to learning—the hālau conducted extensive research on kapa making and dissected chants from their ancestors to guide them forward in the difficult process.

Bark from the wauke tree, or paper mulberry, was most commonly used as it produced the finest fabrics. Planted in the back of Kamohoaliʻi’s Waimea home were several wauke trees that were at the peak of maturity and perfect for harvesting. The trunk was cut with stone tools and the rough outer bark was scraped away from the desired white, fibrous inner bark by using seashells. With a shark-tooth blade, a vertical slit was made along the stalk, allowing the bark to be peeled away from the core. Once the inner bark was pulled away in strips, a round wooden club called a hohoa, or hoahoa, was used to beat the bark and loosen the fibers. Once completed, the soft strips were left to ferment in a container of saltwater. After about 10 days, the bark was saturated, smelly, pulp-like, and very soft. This is where the cloth making process really begins.

The members of the hālau sit together; the mood is calm and everyone in high spirits. In front of each person lies a narrow wooden anvil called a kualaʻau, used as the surface for which the kapa is beaten on. In each hand is a wooden club, rectangular in shape with four flat sides. This is the iʻe kuku. On each side of the flat surfaces are carved designs so when the bark is beaten, a watermark print is left in the fabric. Slowly, the class begins pounding. The iʻe kuku strikes firmly into the bark and a pleasant hollow drum resonates from the anvil. They are not beating hard or with any aggression. Every movement is fluid, focused, and in sync. Then, the class chants.

“A kuʻi kē, ku'i kā, kuʻi kuku kē. A pela aku ʻū ā!” “Pound, beat, and strike the bark cloth until done. Done just like that!” Kamohoaliʻi explains that pounding kapa is done synchronously and the chanting keeps everyone tuned into their task. “In ancient times, women would beat kapa together. Unity in their work avoided chaotic noise, which would be the case if everyone went to their own beat,” says Kamohoaliʻi. “Sometimes the beats even had significant meanings and they would change their tempo to send different messages to women from other villages. In a sense, it was their form of Morse Code.”

Once the bark is beaten, it begins to spread. The process is much like a baker meddling dough. Another strip of bark is folded into the beaten piece and pounded again, a cycle repeated until the fibers are pounded into one another and the bark broadens to the desired length. Some bark strips can be as small as a foot in width and a few feet in length; but at the end of the process, kapa can spread several feet with fantastic results. After all the hālau members complete their own pieces, they are left with material wide and long enough to be worn as pāʻū (skirts) or malo (loincloth).

Once the kapa dries, the last phase is the dying process. The dyes are painted on carefully and left to dry before several more coats are added. Eventually, the colors are vivid upon the cloth. Creating the right colors is a synthesized art and science project. “We would test the dye on paper or cotton and it would turn out to be one color, like purple. But when brushed on the kapa fibers, the dye would turn green! It was really a matter of mixing the right substances and watching their chemical reactions.”

Colors that decorate your wildest dreams are made solely from plants and materials gathered from nature. When boiled and mixed with paʻakai (sea salt), the ʻōlena (turmeric) plant creates a bright yellow dye. Stirring the burnt ash from the wauke tree with kukui (candlenut) oil creates jet-black ink. But most prized for Hālau Nā Kīpuʻupuʻu is a vibrant red. “Many kūpuna (elders) told me it was impossible,” says Kamohoaliʻi. “Yet in the chants of my ancestors they speak of kapa the color of blood, a pulsating red. I knew achieving this had to be possible.” With that, he set out on a mission that he calls his “chemistry project,” mixing various plants and other unusual natural items. In the end, it was the noni plant, burnt coral—and one last secret ingredient—that created the electric red.

Designs are also a whole other element. Members of the hālau were responsible for decorating their own pāʻū and each piece shared a story. Some diagonally painted lines represent the Kïpuʻupuʻu, the falling rains of Waimea. Tribal stamps tell stories of family ʻaumakua (guardians) or old Hawaiian legends. Kapa is not only appealing and unimaginably beautiful, but they are also traditional testaments that are stories in themselves.

At last year’s 2011 Kapa Festival at Greenwell Farms in Kona, Hālau Nā Kīpuʻupuʻu revealed their final pieces. Fully adorned in their creations, they took the stage and completed their final step in this journey—they danced in their kapa. From the first day of harvesting trees to the vibrantly decorated yellow and red cloth, they had accomplished something that no other hālau has done in centuries. But all of this doesn’t faze Kamohoaliʻi or the men and women of the hālau. They know there is still much more to learn and more to be done. “I have a deep respect for my elders and for those who came before me. I don’t consider myself a kapa person, I don’t deserve that honor.” But with all of their accomplishments, Kamohoaliʻi and Hālau Nā Kīpuʻupuʻu are well on their way. 

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