Hina's Kapa

by Veronica S. Schweitzer

Kapa cloth. photo credit: Veronica S. Schweitzer 

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. photo credit: Herb Kawainui Kāne

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.

Readers Respond:

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

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