by Veronica S.
Hina spreads out her kapa, her beaten cloth, white
as snow, clear as a mountain stream. She places stones
on them, to prevent the raging winds from blowing her
clouds away. Hawaiian women look up at the sky and understand
the solemnity of their craft, the making of bark cloth.
Working their tools, they pray.
Kapa was used for clothing, for the malo (loincloth),
the pau (woman's wraparound), and the kihei (shoulder
wrap). Kapa bed-sheets mirrored the wealth, rank, and
social success of Hawaiians. In religious ceremonies,
the cloth was considered a veil between their world
and that of the gods.
As for the manufacturing, few cultures have paralleled
the elaborate and increasingly sophisticated techniques
of the Hawaiians. The first step was to cut and separate
the inner and outer bark of wauke, the paper mulberry
tree, favored for the task. The inner bark then soaked
in water, to soften, purify, and bleach the fibers.
Kapa should be as white as Hina's clouds.
Skilled men and women beat the soaked bark with a wooden,
rounded hohua on a stone anvil till it was felted. A
second beating took place in special halaus (houses)
under kapu (taboo). Here, each woman used her personally
designed carved i'e kuku beater, leaving an indelible
and unique watermark on the cloth. A skilled kapa worker
could beat one to two sheets in a day. Each cloth measured
on average 67 by 17 inches. Paints and stamps created
additional surface designs. Sandalwood and flowers lent
sweet fragrance to the clear, crisp cloth.
Woman beats kapa cloth.
In the 18th century kapa was thick. The bare watermark
designs were angular and linear. When European merchants
arrived with woven silks, interest in kapa rapidly declined.
For a while women still continued the ancient craft,
adding new fibers, using new tools. Watermarks now blended
with detailed bamboo stamps in complicated, circular
patterns. But what was gained in detail, was lost in
function. The luxurious blankets and bolts of fabric
unfolding from foreign vessels won the Hawaiian heart.
And the missionary wives, eager to cover the Hawaiian's
sinful nudity, grasped the opportunity. The American
Board of Missions hosted its first official sewing circle
on April 3, 1820. Taught by seven prim east-coast women,
four half-naked large Hawaiian women, wives of chiefs
and kings, made their first mu'u mu'u, the ample dress,
still in use today.
The sewing circle marked a new era. The mastery of
kapa beating almost died. But perhaps tradition never
dies. Patchwork quilting, so favored by the missionary
wives, never took off. When a Hawaiian woman saw a beautiful
white sheet, like Hina's perfect kapa, she couldn't
bear to cut it up in tiny blocks, only to sew it back
together! She could, however, find the shape of a flower
or a leaf in a scrap of fabric elsewhere. And appliqué
it on that perfect white. To keep the kapa in place.
So was born the kapa apana, the Hawaiian quilt.
White, smooth and fragrant as linen was the ancient
kapa. White, smooth and crisp is the background of the
Hawaiian quilt. Designs inspired by nature. As with
other Hawaiian arts, the art of kapa lives on. Hina's
clouds are still white today.
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I just read your article on kapa and it is nicely done.
I do have one correction though - the garment made aboard
the Thaddeus was not a mu`umu`u but a holoku. The mu`umu`u
was an undergarment, a chemise, until the 1930s.
Linda B. Arthur, PhD
Textiles and Clothing Program
Family and Consumer Sciences
University of Hawaii at Manoa
appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and
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