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Process of making kapa

Each kapa is a connection to the traditions and dreams of my ancestors and the land that nourishes us.  Our wauke grove at Honopua needs time and care before it is ready to give its inner fibers.  These will be beaten and soaked repeatedly until the bast can accept the watermarks on the koa anvil - made by my father for my mother and which is now used by me and my students.


Together we discover new types of adapting ancient methods: experimenting with dye chemistry and creation of designs for imprinting on the dry kapa.  Sometimes we fail.  Sometimes we succeed.  Always there is curiosity and wonder, patience and gratitude.

        Written for Roen Hufford by Jay Hartwell

Kuku kapa e i ke kua, nā kēkē kē kapa e

Hohoa hoʻi e Hoʻo pulu wai e

alele laʻe e laʻe e

kuʻi kʻuʻi ʻalā e Huli huli i ke

moʻo moʻo , huli huli ke alo a, ke kua alo

Laʻi laʻi moʻo moʻo  o ke kua

hoʻo pula wai e kuʻikuʻi a lele

laʻelaʻe moʻomoʻo huli huli i ke alo a, ke kua

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Strike the kapa on the anvil

Clang, clang,clang the kapa

the hoha beater, too

make it wet with water

pound on the stone

turn it to the other side

smoothly join pieces of kapa on the anvil

Hawaiian chant in honor of kapa makers.

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4A-Roen kapalores.jpg

Kapa is made by stripping the bast fiber from the inner stem of the wauke plant, soaking it in seawater and then in fresh water to gently ferment the fibers. The bast is then soft enough to beat with a wooden mallet.  The first beating is usually done with a hohoa (round beater) against a kua pōhaku (stone anvil) and then a kua lāʻau (wooden anvil) until it forms into a thin sheet called moʻomoʻo. 

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These sheets can be layered and felted together using an iʻe kuku (4-sided beater) to create larger pieces.  The kapa then needs to be dried, usually by weighing the edges with iliʻili (small rocks).

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 After softening, it can be decorated with natural dyes.  The finest examples of Hawaiian kapa can resemble the finest of woven fabrics.

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In early Hawaiʻi, the making of kapa involved both men and women.  Men tended the wauke patches and made the many wooden tools needed – hohoa,  iʻe kuku, and kua lāʻau.  Women beat the bast fiber and applied the decorative designs.  It is said when approaching a village, you could hear the sound of women beating kapa long before you saw the village itself. 


Though the basic methods of preparing barkcloth are similar throughout the Pacific Islands, early Hawaiian kapa makers developed processes, created designs, and employed a color palette of exceptional refinement.  Hawaiian kapa is distinguished from other Oceanic barkcloth by the intricate patterns embossed into the fiber with a carved iʻe kuku during the last beating.  This technique produces a watermark best appreciated by holding the kapa up to a light source. Also, Hawaiians developed methods of felting layers of fiber together to create large seamless pieces usually used for kapa moe (blankets).

Watch a short video on making kapa.

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