The Science and Culture of Art - Maui the Kitemaker

Lesson 2 - Activities

What is kapa?


Kapa or bark cloth is the native cloth of Hawaii and other parts of Polynesia. In other Polynesian dialects it is called tapa. It is produced most commonly from bast fibers or inner bark of a particular tree, the wauke, (Broussonetia papyrifera). It can also be made from the inner bulk of the paper mulberry. The trees are grown in small groups near the villages until they are around six feet tall. They are harvested and the inner bark removed by scraping it off with a turtle shell or similar implement. It is soaked until pulpy. Then the fibers are pounded with a mallet to further soften them.


The pulpy mass is overlapped in four or five layers at 90-degree angles and pounded together. It is then dried. This produces a paper-like cloth which can be used for clothing or decoration.


Everyday tapa was produced with little soaking and resulted in a harsher cloth. Well-soaked and fermented fibers produced the best tapa, which was used for the ceremonial garments used by chiefs.


The cloth was decorated by painting with various natural dyes, usually in abstract symbolic patterns which may have had magical or mystical significance.


The Making of Hawaiian Kapa

Kapa making was an activity that included everyone. Men would care for and gather plants, while the women made and painted the kapa. Hawaiian values of laulima, working together, aloha ‘aina, caring for the land, lokahi, unity, and ohana, family, underlay kapa making. Students will start the kapa making process by learning about choosing good trees, how to use the tools correctly, what each step of kapa making is and the importance of being patient and careful in their work. The will also learn the importance of being supportive to each other as they learn a new skill.


How did people learn what trees they could use to make kapa out of? What qualities does this tree bark have that others don’t? What qualities would a plant or tree need to become good kapa? Experiment by pounding on different types of tree bark or different plants. How did they decide to beat it to make it get bigger?


Part 1. Pounding Kapa/ First Beating (90 minutes):


It is a good idea to have a helper who knows kapa making if this is done with a whole class. It is recommended that teachers take an introductory kapa making class before teaching it themselves. This activity was created specifically to be used for fourth grade students in the schools. Kapa pounding activities should be done outside, preferably away from other classrooms.



-Kapa tools or kapa kit, kapa curriculum book (May be purchased from the Cultural Learning Center at Ka`ala, 696-4954)

-Mats to sit on

-Wauke trees

-Tools for first beating: Opihi shell (scraper), niho mano (shark tooth knife), hohoa (round beater), kua pohaku (stone anvil)



-Impress upon students the importance of respecting the tools and handling them safely, not to throw, break or sit or step on them, not to hurt or tease each other with them. Students who do not comply with this important rule should not use the tools.

-Step 1. Scrap off the outer layer of the wauke with the opihi shell. The outer layer is actually three layers; the brown bark, the dark green inner bark, and a pale green inside bark. The kapa layer is white. Care must be taken not to remove this layer until the correct time. The branch is ready when all the bark is scraped off. Occasionally oxidation occurs that will turn the wauke light brown. This will not scrape off but will disappear later.

-Step 2. Carefully make a cut down the length of the branch with the shark tooth knife. Supervision of students is required and they may need help. Steady but not excessive pressure is required to cut through the inner bark of the wauke.

-Step 3. Opening the bark at the cut, the bark is carefully loosened and removed from the branch in one piece. Do not peel like a banana. Depending on the wauke, range of difficulty is easy to difficult. Students will need supervision to make sure they remove the inner bark correctly.

-Step 4. Take the stone, lay the kapa on it lengthwise. The wauke fibers run top to bottom on the tree. Pounding these fibers in the correct direction insures that they spread. Students need to hold the end of the kapa in one hand and starting at the very top of the wauke, pound, using the round beater with the other hand. The objective is to pound the fibers apart, making the kapa wider. The kapa can be beaten to three times or more its original width. A small amount of water can be used as the fibers spread, to help them move more. The kapa should be beaten top to bottom and to the same width. When the beating gets too close to students' fingers, the kapa can be turned so the now narrow end is at the top. It can then be flipped to the other side and the process repeated. Teachers need to watch for tears or holes in the kapa which are not easily fixed at this stage.

-Step 5. Depending on the next activity, the kapa can be soaked for fermentation and the second beating, or it can be dried for dying and printing.


Part 2. Preparing Kapa to Ferment:

In Hawaiian kapa, the fermentation step is what sets it apart from the rest of the Polynesian bark cloth. Fermentation softens the fibers and makes them more pliable, giving Hawaiians the ability to make large pieces of kapa without having to attach pieces together.


Time required:

20 minutes; do as students finish pounding



-Ziploc bags with student's name written in Sharpie ink

-one ti leaf with center stem removed for each student




Step 1. Fold kapa into a small square

Step 2. Place kapa on tip of ti leaf and fold over, making a ti leaf packet. Tie with cord or long end of ti leaf stem.

Step 3. Place ti leaf packet in Ziploc bag and fill with water to cover entire kapa packet and release excess air. Keep bags in a large container and place container in a warm or sunny area. Heat helps the fermentation progress. In about three days the bags will begin to expand from gases building up inside. The smell will be sour. It is a good idea to release this built-up gas in the bags or the bags may pop open. Let kapa ferment for two weeks. The smell will be bad.