Kapa Cloth

Posted by – October 4, 2011

100 year old kapa cloth with printed design

I just returned from Kauai, Hawaii where I purchased a piece of kapa cloth. Kapa cloth has long been on my list of fabrics that I wanted in my collection and doubted that I would ever find. The cloth is about 22″ wide and 12′ long. The color is off white without any printing. I purchased it at a native crafts sale at Kilohana Plantation from the granddaughter of Amelia Uepi, Kappa, Kauai, who made the fabric.

I’ve always been fascinated by kapa cloth (tapa cloth). It’s a nonwoven fabric found in Hawaii and Polynesia that is made by pounding tree bark. These islands didn’t support any of the plant or animal fibers that most of us are familiar with for thread and fabric production. The piece I have is made from wauke (paper mulberry). Other trees are used to make kapa cloth but wauke seems to be the most desirable. Basically branches about 1″ in diameter by about 2′ long for my fabric are cut and the bark removed. The outer bark is scraped off leaving just the inner bark. Strips of bark are pounded separately and then together to make a piece of fabric the desired length. When I hold my fabric up to the light I can see the strips joined about every 3″ (1″ diameter times Pi gives a circumference of 3″ or width of 3″ when cut open). There are also small patches visible where the bark was thin but these are generally pounded in very well and don’t show or affect the drape of the fabric.

The weight and drape of the fabric is similar to a medium weight nonwoven interfacing. It seems like it would wear like a lightweight muslin. It can be folded without breaking the fibers. I suspect that it would get softer with use. Also available for sale were tapa wall hangings which were painted on a base made of three layers of tapa cloth glued together with tapioca starch. This made a much more rigid fabric.