Barkcloth in Hawai‘i

Polynesia > Eastern Polynesia > Hawai‘i

Map of Oceania highlighting the location of Hawai‘i (© Pacific Peoples' Partnership; edited to add location overlay)
Map of Oceania highlighting the location of Hawai‘i (© Pacific Peoples’ Partnership; edited to add location overlay)

Art Historical Description

The kapa of Hawai‘i was – and still is – unquestionably the most technically sophisticated and aesthetically diverse tradition of Pacific tapa – and indeed, probably the world’s most complex barkcloth art. This may seem like an ambitious claim, but more plant species were exploited in Hawai‘i for bast, and more for colourants, than the rest of Oceania combined. We have little real idea about the true number of discrete fabric types that were made in the 1770s when museum collections and written historical documents begin, but those remembered and recorded a century later in the twilight of the art far outnumber any other island group; thirty-six named fabrics are listed here.

Almost every manufacturing and decorative technique practiced elsewhere in Polynesia found its equivalent in classic Hawaiian society, either by ancient importation or independent invention, while many techniques were unique to Hawai‘i alone. Most notable among these are perhaps the delicate grooved and laminated kapa of different colours on either face; the fine and lace-like kalukalu cloth patterned with complex geometric beater marks; the mixed hybrid materials incorporating māmaki fibres, or latterly shredded European textiles, into a paper mulberry substrate; the expansion of the Polynesian colour palette to include true greens, blues, purples and several other delicate tones; and the carving of ‘ohe kapala stamps into increasingly complex shapes over the early to mid-19th century.

Despite all these superlatives demonstrating that kapa making was one of the great art forms – if not the greatest – of traditional Hawaiian civilisation, it was just as vulnerable to the western textile trade and missionary censure which eroded barkcloth making everywhere in Polynesia. Indeed, the particularly outward-looking and westernising interests of Hawai‘i’s royalty during the early 19th century, the early acceptance of a settler plantation economy, and Honolulu’s unparalleled strategic location as a resupply port for north Pacific shipping, all made for a rapid transition to a Western dress culture utilising imported textiles. Historical images as early as the 1820s show Hawaiiians wearing a hybrid wardrobe of kapa mixed with European imports. By the 1880s when Hawai‘i was annexed by the USA, photographs seem to show kapa was only being worn by men for fishing and surfing, while women’s clothing had become completely dominated by the voluminous holoku or Mother Hubbard dress introduced by Protestant missionaries from both New England and Britain.


  • Brigham, W.T. (1911). Ka hana kapa, the making of bark-cloth in Hawaii. Memoirs of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum of Polynesian Ethnology & Natural History, Vol. III. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press
  • Hiroa, T.R. (Buck, P.H.) (1957). Arts and crafts of Hawaii. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press
  • Bishop, M.B. (1940). Hawaiian life of the pre-European period. Salem, MA: Peabody Museum


Outline map of Hawai‘i (copyright OpenStreetMap contributors; licensed under CC-BY SA 2.0; map tile edited to add scale overlay)
Outline map of Hawai‘i (© OpenStreetMap contributors; map tile edited to add scale overlay)

Making Barkcloth

Characteristic Materials

Characteristic Techniques

river-board cortex stripping; long retting bast soak; fermentation; initial beating – stone anvil and round beater; mixed material composition; fusing composition; linear beater marking; crossed linear beater marking; true grid beater marking; Hawaiian complex beater marking; cowrie burnishing; immersion dyeing; double-faced kua‘ula layering; hole grooving; overcast stitches; running stitches; hand painting; small stem printing; bamboo liner printing; complex Hawaiian printing

Characteristic Fabric Types

punana; ha‘imanawa; kikama; kopili; pa‘ina; kalukalu (pukapuka); kapa po‘ulu; kapa māmaki; kapa ma‘oloa (‘oloa); kapa hau; kua‘ula; pa‘i‘ula; welu‘ula; pukohukohu (punoni); hamo‘ula; kapa ‘akala; moelua; moelola; u‘au‘a; waili‘ili‘i; kelewai; kaha; hulali; pele (pelehu); hiwa (pulou, pulohiwa); ‘aeokahaloa; halakea (puaniu); pehuakoa; pu‘ukukui; lalani; kikiko; kiokio; poniponi; anoni; alolua (malo kapeke); nio


Entry created on 28 August 2020