Arts and Literature

Clothing and Ornaments

Kapa Bark Cloth Garments

Ancient Hawaiian clothing was called ‘A’AHU. Women wore skirts of KAPA barkcloth called PA’U. Men wore waist and loin cloths made of  soft kapa called MALO. Incolder weather a cape made of  kapa cloth called KIHEI was worn over the shoulders for warmth. People often went barefoot but did sometimes wear sandals called KAMA’A made of tough plant fiber.

The most well known barkcloth was made by peeling, fermenting, rinsing, and then pounding strips of bark from the paper mulberry bush called WAUKE. The strips were then laid flat, overlapped, and pounded to a desired thickness. Heavier kapa was stiffer, delicate kapa was so thin it looked like fine, sheer, delicate lace. As the Hawaiian women pounded the kapa, it softened and the fibers of the different strips bonded into a large piece of fabric. Their kapa beaters were often carved with unique patterns that left a geometric impression on the cloth, a technique practiced only in Hawaii out of all of Polynesian barkcloth making. Held to the light, the thin, elegant kapa cloth looks like the finest laces with the hardwood beater’s carvings making a watermark all over the fabric that created a tone-on-tone pattern unique to each beater.

Other types of bark also used to make cloth were ‘ULU – breadfruit shoots, MAMAKI, MA”AUEA, the outer skin of  the banana trunks, HAU, “AKAL, OLOA, and KOU. Mulberry was the favorite; next favorite was mamaki.

Kapa Cloth Dye

Barkcloths were colored with plant and mineral dyes. It is thought that the men prepared the dyes to assist the women in coloring the kapa cloth worn by men, women and children.

‘OLENA - Tumeric created a yellow dye

NONI bark created a pink – red cloth and its root created yellow.

‘AKALA, native raspberry fruit created pink dye

‘AMA’UMA’U was a fern used to create red

‘UKI’UKI had a berry that created a pale blue

MA’O leaves created a rare green

KUKUI bark created red and its nut hush or root made black

Charcoal created a blue-grey dye from burnt hili, sugarcane or kukui nuts. 

Red ocher and yellow ocher were ground in a stone mortar with a stone pestle and, when mixed with kukui or kamani oil, made a long lasting dye.

Kapa Coloring and Designs

The unique pounded watermark designs in the kapa fiber itself was often overlaid by other designs and colors. Some times a cloth was immersed in a dye, but this required a lot of very hard-to-make dye so often the dye was lightly painted onto one side of the kapa.

Sometimes a design was painted onto the kapa, but more common was an overlay of other colored kapa beaten into the main layer – red pieces beaten onto a white background for example. This overlay technique now called felting was unique to Hawaiian kapa.

Also unique to Hawaii and not practiced by other Polynesian island barkcloth makers was the development of block printing. The carved woodstamps were dipped into dye, the excess shaken off, and then the block was pressed onto the kapa. This was repeated to create a line of continuous or evenly spaced overall printed design. Bamboo was often used as an easily carved and lightweight stamp that was easy to handle by the printer. These were called ‘OHE (bamboo) KAPALA (to stamp).


Straight lines were drawn upon the kapa surface using KAUILA or bamboo liners. A liner would have a single point  to create one dyed line at a time. Or it could be carved like a comb with 3-5 tines that allowed 3-5 lines to be drawn with a colored dye in one careful stroke.

Video of Kapa Cloth Making Demonstration