We call it Kapa, here in Hawaii, known elsewhere as Tapa, Siapo, and Masi to name a few. It is the ancient material of the planet, tree bark transformed into a textile used the world over, litterally. Itʻs not exactly tree bark, but rather the bast of the Wauke tree, the inner bark that is used. Hemp and linen are also made from bast fibers, and there are many, many other trees and plants used throughout history for the same purpose; banana, ficus, Ulu, Hau, and tons of plants from the continents that I canʻt name, except Wisteria vines, which I really want to try. Here in Hawaii, it is the Wauke, also known as paper Mulberry or Broussonetia Papyrafera, yea, like papyrus, same stuff. In Hawaii, however, the extra step of fermentation resulted in a superior product, fine, white, and soft. The Hawaiians were known for their extremely beautiful and intricate Kapa designs, and achieved large seamless pieces fit for any royal family, but used daily by our Ali‘i Nui.
So the first Hawaiians carried Wauke with them, planted it here and developed an industry that included farmers, Kapa tool makers, kapa makers, dyers, and designers. Then contact with the outside world was made, and in less than a decade, the Hawaiian islands were transformed from Non-metal, non-written, non-haole, to something completely different. And Kapa was instantly and unceremoniously replaced with woven textiles from America and Europe. The practice, much like the language, was almost completely lost.
Thanks to the perseverance of a few makers, my Kumu included, Dalani Tanahy, the process has been eeked out of the darkness. Through trial and error, all of us Kapa makers have found our way, and are still finding our practices.
The thing I love most about Kapa, is that it takes me out of my head and back into my body. I have to work my land, I have to gather in my ahupua‘a, I have to scrounge for wood and learn carving techniques, I have to innovate, I have to work with my hands and my nose-the stuff gets STINKY-and my back and my arms. I have to be patient and thankful for every piece of Kapa that I am able to create.
It is renewable, it is sustainable, it is beautiful, it is safe, non-toxic, green, organic. It can be used in tons of different applications, and I will help to make that happen! Call it the Hemp of the Pacific! (Hereʻs a paper I wrote on modern bark cloth practices)
It is uniquely Hawaiian and it is in me, and I hope to spread it as a Hawaiian cultural practice, art, and value.