Sunday, June 27, 2010

Tongan Tapa Cloth

I think I mentioned that I'd recently been to Hawaii on vacation. It was so wonderful - and we got lots of wonderful pictures.  If you care to see them and drool, you can check out my travel blog.  One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center - a great place to learn a little history in a thoroughly entertaining way.  It features performers who are students at nearby Brigham Young University.  These young people work their way through college while having the opportunity to help others understand their heritage in a meaningful way.  It's a wonderful family destination, and the joy the students experience in their work is evident!  

The park is laid out as a number of villages, each from a different nation in Polynesia.  In the village representing Tonga (which I was surprised to learn has no hard "g" sound in it), we saw the most wonderful bark cloth, and learned a little about how it is made.  The amazing thing to me is that this process is still a part of daily life on Tonga.

Tonga is an island nation near Fiji and Australia.
The women are responsible for making and decorating the cloth, called Tapa Cloth.  While the cloth was made in several Polynesian countries, only Tonga still continues the practice.  The bark is stripped off the paper mulberry tree, called hiapo in Tonga, and brought back to the home, where it is stripped into the outer and inner layers.  The inner layer is what is used for the tapa.  It is dried in the sun and then placed on a large wooden anvil and beaten with wooden mallets. 

The beating spreads the bark very thin and forms a sheet of a paper-like substance.  These sheets are then overlapped to form wider sheets.  If the sheets don't stick together by themselves, some starch is added to act as an adhesive.  The sheets are then overlapped with another layer of cloth at right angles, to add strength, and beaten again to make one large piece of very strong cloth, with fibers running in each direction.  Often, all the women of a village will work together to produce a large sheet of tapa cloth.
The cloth is then trimmed with sharp pieces of shell or knives.  Now the cloth is ready to be painted.  The sheet is placed over a very large wooden drum covered with stencils made of sticks.  Brown paint is rubbed in  now with a dabber.  Where the paint is applied and where the stencils are placed will decide the final decoration.  When one strip is done, the sheet is lifted from the drum, moved and another strip is begun.  Once the entire sheet has been stenciled, the cloth is spread out on the ground, and the faint stencil marks are then gone over with more paint to accentuate the original markings.  
The "paint" is really dye made from the native plants - usually in shades of brown.  It is applied with brushes made of sticks with the ends frayed.  The end result is spectacular, and they had lots of examples for us to see.  For more on Tongan tapa cloth, check out this website.

There were also many examples of woven grass or straw material. the mat below looks like it could have been made from a cross-stitch design, doesn't it?

These pictures have certainly brought back all the wonderful memories from this holiday.  Wouldn't you love to go off to Tonga now to see how this is done in person?


  1. And this is a good example of why so may cultures used cloth as one form of currency. When you think of what goes/went into the making of cloth prior to the Industrial Revolution, it really was a precious commodity. Sometimes we get lucky and still find handwoven, hand printed cloth. Nothing better!

  2. What a nice trip you had! Lovely pictures of the Tonga cloths and I love the woven mats!


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