Adventist Youth Honors Answer Book/Household Arts/Tapa Cloth

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Tapa Cloth
General Conference

Household Arts

Skill Level 1
Year of Introduction: Unknown

1. What are the main uses of tapa cloth?

Tapa cloth (or simply tapa) is a bark cloth made in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, primarily in Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, but as far afield as Niue, Cook Islands, Futuna, Solomon Islands, Java, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea (particularly in Oro Province around Tufi) and Hawaiʻi (where it is called kapa). In French Polynesia it has nearly disappeared, except for some villages in the Marquesas.

In former times the cloth was primarily used for clothing, but now cotton and other textiles have replaced it. The major problem with tapa clothing is that the tissue is just like paper: it loses strength when wet and falls apart. In spite of this, it was better than grass-skirts, which usually are either heavier and harder or easily blown apart.

Nowadays tapa is still often worn on formal occasions such as weddings. Another use is as blanket at night. It is also highly prized for its decorative value and is often used as a decorative wall hanging. In Tonga a family is considered poor, no matter how much money they have, if they do not have any tapa in stock at home ready to give as a gift at weddings, funerals and so forth. A tapa given as a gift by a chief or even the royal family is considered highly valuable.

2. Know three different ways that tapa cloth is made in the Pacific Islands.

This 5 part series of short videos covers Tapa across the Pacific and shows everything from how mulberry trees are propagated and planted, through the preparation and dyeing of the tapa.

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]

Also this lady shows Hawaiian kapa making, and reviews the tools she uses for teaching the art. [Hawaii video]

The basic process of making the cloth from mulberry bark is the same, but there is considerable variation in how:

  • The cloth is glued together into bigger pieces - with tapioca root or other ways
  • The patterns beaten into (or not) the cloth
  • The dyes used

3. Know the trees used for making tapa cloth in your area.

Originally, tapa cloth was most likely made from the bark of the Dye-fig (Ficus tinctoria), endemic to Oceania. Sometime in history during the voyages of migration, the paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera) was introduced from Southeast Asia. The bark of the paper mulberry is much better suited to making tapa cloth, and so severely curtailed the use of the Dye-fig.

Many other trees provide the tools and dyes to make the tapa cloth. They vary by island, but traditionally include:

  • Ironwood for the mallet used to beat the cloth.
  • Coconut fiber used under the logs as shock absorbers
  • Coconut fiber used to make patterns for transfer to cloth
  • various hardwood to make the anvil
  • Tree bark used to make the dye

See the videos for specifics

4. a. Explain the steps in making tapa cloth and then demonstrate your knowledge by making a 1/2 meter square tapa cloth.

As Tonga is the country where tapa is still a part of daily life, the following description is given for that country. Although on other islands the overall process is about the same, there still might be several smaller or larger differences.

In Tonga hiapo is the name given to the paper-mulberry tree. People have bunches of them growing in a corner of their plantations. They are cut and brought home where the first task is to strip the bark from the trees. The strips are about hand wide and person long. The wood so left over is named mokofute. The bark consists of 2 layers. In the next step the outer bark is to be scraped or split off from the inner bark. This work is called ha'alo. The outerbark is discarded, the innerbark, named tutu or loututu, is left over. It is first dried in the sun before being soaked.

After this, the bark is beaten on a wooden tutua anvil using wooden mallets called ike. In the beating the bark is made thinner and spread out to a width of about 25 cm. This phase of the work is called tutu (or tutua). The mallets are flat on one side and have coarse and fine grooves on the other sides. First the coarse sides are used, and towards the end of the work the flat side (tā-tuʻa). The continuous "thonk" beats of the tapa mallet is still a normal sound in the Tongan villages. If several women work together they can make a concert out of it. In that case there might be one who tukipotu, beats the end of the tutua to set the rhythm.

When the strips are thin enough, several strips are taken together and beaten together into a large sheet. Some starch from the kumala, or manioke may be rubbed on places which are unwilling to stick. This part of the work is called ʻopoʻopo, the glue is called tou and the resulting sheet of tapa is called fetaʻaki. It then consists of two layers of strips in perpendicular direction, the upper one called lauʻolunga and the lower one laulalo. A knife or sharp shell named mutu is used to trim the edges, and the pieces fallen off in this process are called papanaki. When the white fetaʻaki is smoked brown, it is called sala.

Often the women of a whole village work together on a huge sheet of tapa. A donation to the church or their chief at an important occasion. Such sheets are about 3 meters wide and 15, or 30, or sometimes even 60 meters long. The 15 meter pieces are called launima (meaning: five-sheet, because the sheet is 5 squares), and the 30 meter pieces are called lautefuhi.

4. b. Explain the process of dying tapa cloth using natural dyes and decorate your tapa cloth.

The fetaʻaki is almost always painted. It then becomes ngatu, the Tongan word for the final product. The painting is done over the whole length, but only the central 2.5 meter in the width direction. On both sides there is an unpainted border of about 20 cm wide, which is called the tapa (in Tonga). In order to paint it, the sheets are first put over a huge wooden drum covered with stencils or kupesi. These stencils are made from coconut front midribs (or any other sticks of a few millimeter thick). These stencils are made in the pattern which will be used. There are a handful of standard kupesi designs, like the 'Pine road' (the road from the palace to the royal cemetery), or the 'Shield of Tonga', or the 'Lion' (the king), or the 'Dove' (the king as ruler), and more abstract figures like the 'Manulua' (2 birds).

The tapa sheet is put over the drum and the women now rub with force a dabber with some brown paint (made from the koka tree (Bischofia javanica)) over the sheet. This work is called tataʻi. Where they rub over a rib of the kupesi more paint will stick to that position while very little will stick elsewhere. In this way the basic pattern is put on the sheet. Once a part is done, they lift up the sheet and proceed to the next strip and so forth. Only when the whole sheet has been preprocessed, then it will be spread out on the ground and with a brush (made from Pandanus seeds) the women will accentuate the faintly visible marks with some more generous paint, this time made from the tongo, the mangrove (Rhizophora mangle). Both koka and tongo paint are always brown, but the latter is much darker. Black is not used in Tonga, although it is characteristic for Fiji.

It is customary that during the paint process lines are drawn on the ngatu along the width every 45 cm or more. The kupesi too are made to the size that they will fit in the divisions thusly made. Such a division is known as langanga and they are numbered (on the blank tapa) from one to as many as needed for the whole length. When a smaller piece of ngatu is needed, the sheet is cut along a langanga division. A 4 to 6 langanga piece is called folaʻosi. An 8 piece is fātuua, while a 10 langanga piece of ngatu is known as toka hongofulu. Less common are the double fātuua, named fātufā or double of that again, the fātuvalu.

These are the traditional ngatu, as evidenced by the extensive vocabulary used (still many more terms exist). Nowadays for the tourist trade other sizes and designs can be made as well done.

5. Make a collection of a number of different types of tapa cloth designs and outline the purpose for which they were used.

This is part of the "do" section of the honor. Enjoy collecting the cloth samples. You might try craft or traditional markets, or if you live outside the an area where tapa cloth is made, look on the internet.


  1. Guide to Tapa Cloth
  2. The definitive book on Tapa cloth
  3. PDF with info and discussion questions
  4. A clear video of the tapa process
  5. Tapa making on Pitcairn Island