Kapa Clothing in Old Hawaii

Kapa cloth as displayed at Bishop Museum

When the temperatures drop here in the islands, and they do drop, I can go to my closet and pull out any warm item to put on. At night while walking the dogs I can look up into the cold, clear, crisp sky and pull the hood of my sweatshirt around my neck.

On the Island of Hawaii, the one called the Big Island the temperatures can drop drastically.  The ancient Hawaiians had  houses  made of grass, well made yes, but still when temperatures drop into the 40’s bringing wind and rain during the winter, you certainly need clothing to keep you warm.

Not being able to run to Wal Mart to get warm pants for the kids, nor sheer  sheep as they were non existent, what did the Hawaiians use?

Trees! Can you imagine trying to keep your large family warm with clothing made from trees? This was the only option and the Hawaiians did it well. It was a family concern and everyone played their part.

The tree that was favored for the clothing was called Wauke or paper Mulberry as is more commonly known elsewhere. The men planted it in groves. The children helped to pluck off any shoots from the trunk to keep it from branching.

Several pieces of Kapa would have to be felted together to make this size

When the tree reached 6 to 12 feet in height or an inch in diameter, it was cut down and then the trunks were brought to the waiting women. They would then cut open the outer bark with an implement made from a sharks tooth, remove the inner bark and flatten it. This they did by coiling it inside out.

Once flat they would then scrape off any remaining outer bark or they may choose to soak the fiber and remove it that way.

To get the fibers to felt together they would pound them on a stone while one of the young girls would continue to supply water from a stream for their mother to sprinkle while pounding. Then the fiber was rolled into coils and soaked for several days.

Once the soaking was done the fibers were laid flat and piled in mounds and dampened again and weighed down with stones to soften the fiber further.

Then they were pounded out one last time on a wooden anvil with a four sided wooden beater. The deep groove of one side was used first. The lesser grooves were then used and last the side with the patterns were pounded in.

Bamboo carved with various designs to put into the Kapa interspersed between Kapa beaters

After the pounding was done which took a day, the kapa was then laid out to dry. It then could be dyed or a designe could be printed on it. I’ve been told that not all of it was decorated. And who could blame the mother with a tribe of kids to clothe if she didn’t feel like going that extra step.

A strip of Kapa laying on a carved wooden Anvil where the Kapa was pounded

The Kapa could be oiled with Kukui nut oil to make it water repellent or sometimes it was embossed to give it extra strength.

Embossed Kapa (click on photo for closer look)

Kapa was used as shawls, bedspreads, (several on a bed) wrap babies in, malos for the men to wear or skirts called pau or used as clothing warn in hula. Colors were many. There was pink, red, yellow, black, green, and pale blue. These were taken from a variety of plants and trees.

Some of the Colors and Designs of Ancient Kapa

I’ve been asked many times what does the Kapa feel like? We used to have a piece that was over 100 years old that we used for our tours. It was as soft as cheesecloth and just the fact that it was that old attest to it’s durability.

There were other ways of staying warm I’m sure among them Ti leaf capes and fires and I really don’t know what else but the beauty and funcionality of this cloth speaks to the talents of the ancient kanaka maoli.

If you would like to read a little more on the making of Kapa, I found a nice site called Kapa Making and processing please check it out.

If you would like to read an informative little boon on Kapa I got some of my information from “The Ancient Hawaiians” by Margaret Titcomb.  If you would like to see the real artifact please stop by Bishop Museum.

I am always open to added information and if you have any corrections or antidotes I’d be happy to hear from you.


5 comments on “Kapa Clothing in Old Hawaii

  1. Homepage says:

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  2. Toby Neal says:

    I am really learning a lot from your site! For instance, I thought kapa was made from coconut fibers somehow, or hau bush. Embarrassing! Thanks for the great info. I think I’ll add a link to your site for Hawaiiana information.


    • Thank you Toby. I have to keep researching for my tours at the museum and it helps when I put a blog together as I find
      I end up asking myself questions. Of course when researching and talking amongst other docents, sometimes we
      each have different understandings and sources. That’s why I would welcome any input on what I write.

      The Hawaiians did make cloth from other trees when the Wauke was not available and I’m not sure what they were. But the coconut tree did have many usages but I’m not sure if clothing was one of them. Anything is possible.


  3. Debby says:

    This is so interesting! I am a quilter. Would this be considered ‘Bark Cloth’?


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