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History of Hawaiian Kapa

The importance of kapa in Hawaiian culture stretches back to the earliest settlement of the Hawaiian Islands, which is estimated as having occurred in waves between the 4th and 9th centuries CE.  Seeking a new home, voyagers from the Marqueses, the Tuamotus, and the Society Islands set out on sailing canoes carrying with them the plants and animals needed to ensure their survival, including wauke (Broussonetia papyrifera; paper mulberry), the plant used to make kapa. 


Queen Ka`ahumanu wearing kapa. Depiction by Louis Choris - 1819. (

Because loom weaving was known on just a few Pacific islands, barkcloth took the place of woven fabric.  Barkcloth is known by different names throughout Polynesia – masi in Fiji, siapo in Samoa, ngatu in Tonga, ahu in Tahiti, and kapa in Hawaiʻi.  For early Hawaiians, kapa was as essential to life as food because it was used for nearly every aspect of life.  It swaddled newborns, was worn as every day clothing, twined into sandals, and used to create blankets.  It was made into special garments for hula and for ceremonies, adorned sacred images and was used to prepare burials.  Because of its importance, every village grew wauke and every village made kapa. Tribute taxes collected by aliʻi (chiefs) were often paid with kapa instead of food.


The origins of many natural phenomenon, plants, and crafts essential to early Hawaiian life are often explained with moʻolelo (stories).  One such account tells of the Hawaiian Goddess Hina who lived on the island of Maui.  “At this time, the sun raced across the sky so quickly, and the days were so short, that she could not dry her kapa.  Hina complained to her son, Maui.  He fashioned a sturdy rope of coconut fibers, and at night, he climbed to the top of Haleakalā to wait for the rising of the sun.  When the sun began to appear, he snared it by one of its rays and held fast.  He was then able to make the sun agree to travel more slowly through the sky.  Thus time itself, and the length of the days and nights as we experience them, are tied to the ancient art of kapa making.”*

From “The Moʻolelo of Kapa” by Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl in the brochure “Kapa Kahilu  - An exhibition in honor of Marie McDonald,” Kahilu Theatre - 2016. 

As with many indigenous craft traditions, Hawaiian kapa makers use their native language – ʻōlelo Hawai’i - for many of the tools and processes unique to their craft.  Hawaiian oli and mele (chants & songs) often contain poetic references to craft traditions.  To honor the importance of kapa and the Hawaiian language, we present a mele that likens the beauty of kapa to some of the wonders found in nature.  This chant is offered by Kepā Maly who studied hula under kumu hula (hula teacher) Maʻiki Aiu Lake.  Her students chanted this mele while dressing for their ‘ūniki (formal graduation) to become teachers and practitioners of hula.


Kakua pāʻū, ‘ahu nā kīkepa                           Gird on the kapa skirt and the shoulder sash,
I ka pāʻū no‘eno‘e a ho‘oulu ia                     The pā‘ū that is lightly colored,

I ho‘okākua ‘ia a pa‘a iluna o ka imu,           Its colors were bound securely above the

                                                                         heat of the earthen oven,

Kū ka hu‘a o ka pali o Kawaikapu,                It lifts and flows like the water on the cliff

                                                                         of Kawaikapu,

He kuina pā‘ū pali no Kūpēhau.                   Its folds are like the fluted cliffs of Kūpēhau,

I holo a pa‘a ‘ia                                              Travel and make it hold fast,

Pa‘a i Honokāne                                             Secured at Honokāne.


** This version of the mele is credited to Mary Kawena Puku‘i and Lokalia Montgomery.  The interpretive translation is by Kepā Maly.

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