The Chronicles of Kapa: Hawaii's Traditional Attire

The art of kapa-making is back, having enjoyed a modern-day revival

“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.” —Samuel Kamakau, Hawaiian historian, 1870

Kamakau’s strong assertion may have been true in the late 19th century. Today, in the decades following a profound resurgence of Hawaiian cultural practices, the art of kapa making is back, having enjoyed a modern-day revival. It is especially evident at times like the 47th annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, a.k.a. the world series of hula competitions. At the 2012 event, when the time was right, dozens of dedicated haumana, students, of Kumu Hula Nalani Kanaka‘ole of Halau O Kekuhi, filed solemnly onto the stage. The audience of several thousand fans gasped, and then burst into thunderous applause. It had been centuries since dancers adorned in kapa had presented an ancient hula.

Created from the pounded bark of the wauke (also called paper mulberry bush), kapa is the fabric of ancient times, used as clothing and adornment, tied or even draped in the manner of Western attire. The man-made material of Hawai‘i and all of Polynesia can be as fine as Chinese silk and as sturdy as supple leather, and the process of creating it was a life’s work for Hawaiians.

“In ancient times, all families would grow their own wauke for their use,” says prominent, O‘ahu-based kapa maker Dalani Tanahy. “The men would care for and cultivate these plants.”

Following the harvesting, the ‘ili (outer skin) would be stripped with the use of a sharpened edge of a shell. Carefully rolled in small coils, it would sit, becoming flat and smooth. Unrolled, scraped to remove all bark, it would be rolled again, and fermented in water for days. The kapa maker would then unroll the soft coil and beat it on a stone anvil, a kua pohaku, with a round hohoa, beater. It would be soaked again, then beaten on a wood anvil, kua la‘au, with a four-sided i‘e kuku tool engraved with patterns that would permanently imprint and become the watermark of the artist. Combined by the beating, the strips would be felted together into a “fabric.”

“Beating does not mean beating the bark senseless. … Beating is coaxing,” Tanahy explains. “Beating kapa is not the time for releasing pent-up issues, stress or hostility. It is a time to be patient, quiet and prepared to create something wonderful.” Some kapa was scented, and much of it featured kaona, hidden meaning. Old journals and stories describe the many hours of pounding and decoration as meditation. Made from natural sources such as red dirt, noni bushes and kolea trees, sea-urchin ink or the dried leaves of the mao tree, pulverized dyes would be mixed with kukui nut oil and then stamped in intricate patterns of color.

A hand-carved wooden stamp or ohe kapala was painted with the pigment and used to print on finished kapa.

Each unique kapa design told a story of royal ancestry, great deities and the seasons of life: the swaddling cloth of a newborn child; the canvas on which to portray Hawaiian goddesses and gods; the blanket to spread atop the sleeping bed of island royalty; the shawl of a priestly elder or kahuna; and the shroud with which to ceremonially cover the bones of ancestors.

In 1778, when ocean explorer Capt. James Cook anchored in what he dubbed “the Sandwich Islands,” he was amazed by kapa and wrote: “One would suppose that they (Hawaiians) had borrowed their patterns from some mercer’s shop in which the most elegant productions of China and Europe are collected.” Never having encountered cotton or linen to weave into cloth, the Hawaiians were equally curious when they set their eyes on Western garb, thread-sewn with sleeves and pant legs.

Following the early adventurers in Hawai‘i were missionary ships in the 1820s, bringing with them an amazing treasure: bolts of woven fabric. Kapa makers became seamstresses. Modern ways, lack of natural materials, tools and toolmakers, and the migration of Pacific people took a toll on kapa. For nearly a hundred years, this and other art forms hibernated in the collective creative memory of island craftsmen as Hawaiian culture was all too often pre-empted by a new Western way of life. In the 1960s and ’70s, however, awareness was raised among native Hawaiians and became what is now commonly referred to as the Hawaiian Renaissance. Language, music and art forms of the past came back into the daylight with new vitality, hurtling toward the contemporary art world at seemingly warp speed.

An early explorer of the ancient art in modern times, Malia Solomon, with the support of Kenneth Emory (senior anthropologist, Bishop Museum), traveled the islands of the Pacific, finding teachers and learning their craft to share with Hawaiian artisans. Next, Puanani Van Dorpe stepped into a boat and sailed to Fiji, where she sat for weeks with Fijian women as they made kapa. More young women followed, attracting the eyes of discerning collectors worldwide. Young artisans learned from the masters and from the collections at Bishop Museum and the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Kapa makers gathered at museums, parks and schools to exchange ideas and discuss their discoveries as they re-created and re-invented the process. Their work was honored with exhibitions and purchased for display in resorts and visitor and convention centers. Kapa was alive and moving into the next century.

There is no quick, modern way of making traditional kapa. The work is laborious, slow and the rewards intangible. However, the dedication of a new generation will ensure that the vibrant art of Hawaiian kapa will continue to touch both artist and collector, beyond the shores of these Islands, in the hearts and souls of maka‘ainana, the people.