Barkcloth in Niue

Polynesia > Western Polynesia > Niue

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

Art Historical Description

The making of hiapo barkcloth on the small island nation of Niue was discontinued by the early 20th century at the latest, and museum collections of historical Niuean tapa cloth are sadly few and small. However, those that do exist attest to a rich and complex art history during the 19th century. The basic Niuean manufacturing process was broadly similar to that practiced in the neighbouring countries of Tonga and Samoa – bast soaking before beating was short and fermentation of the bast was unknown. Comparatively large sheets were produced by glueing the bast sheets together with a starch paste of Polynesian arrowroot (Tacca leontopetaloides). The cloth was finished with the flat ungrooved face of the ike beater, and decoration was performed entirely by hand-painting. While the terminology of Niuean tapa and its manufacturing tools reflect its close linguistic affinities with Tonga, Niuean histories trace settlement to Samoa and the production methods of 19th century Niuean hiapo are closely allied with Samoan methods. They also follow the approximate dimensions (2.5m by 1.8m) of siapo; are similarly constructed from a double layer of bast pasted together throughout; and even bear the iconic Samoan serrated edges.

Until the 1840s, the people of Niue were (understandably enough) ambivalent about there being any significant benefits to cultural and economic intercourse with western visitors. As a result, the first Niueans to convert to Christianity did so in Samoa, and a Protestant mission was established by them in the years after 1849. This brought Samoan ‘native teachers’ (as they were called) of the London Missionary Society – and more importantly, their wives – to Niue. The earliest historical descriptions suggest that Niuean hiapo before the 1850s were essentially plain, while those of the third quarter of the mid-19th century were hand painted with precisely the same iconography of geometric and vine motifs as contemporary Samoan siapo mamanu. However, such hiapo often bear inscriptions in Niuean, and there is a distinct absence of brown ‘o‘a bark juice (Bischofia javanica) glazing. Towards the end of the 19th century, the geometric decorative elements became marginalised to give greater space to vine and floral motifs. At the same time, representational subjects appear for which Niuean hiapo has become famous in the literature on Pacific art. This was, in truth, a product of Western artistic influence in the final phase of hiapo manufacture, and it seems that barkcloth had been entirely replaced by woven textiles by the 1930s at the latest. Named fabric types are not recorded.


  • Pule, J. and Thomas, N. (2005). Hiapo: past and present in Niuean barkcloth. Dunedin: University of Otago Press


Outline map of Niue (credit: The World Factbook 2020. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2020)
Outline map of Niue

Making Barkcloth

Characteristic Materials

Characteristic Techniques

river-board cortex stripping; initial beating – wooden anvil and square beater; pre-fusing; flat-faced beater smoothing; composition pasting throughout; serrated edging; hand painting

Characteristic Fabric Types


Entry created on 28 August 2020