Hawaiian Kapa:  Native Textile Art

Once a necessity, kapa making is now a form of art

By Cara Fasone

Polynesian men in loincloths are what we imagine when we think of ancient Hawaii, but before woven cloth came to the islands with Captain Cook, what did the native Hawaiians wear?

The Art of Kapa

Hawaiian kapa, a traditional textile made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry plant, was made by native Hawaiians and used for clothing (skirts for women or pa’u and loincloths for men, malo.) Although modern Hawaiians buy their clothes at the mall like anyone else, kapa making has become an art form.

Hawaiian kapa artisan describes the process
Video by Helen Chang

The fibers were flattened, spread, and beaten with tools until it reached the size they wanted. The kapa was then dyed and painted with different designs. Making kapa is a labor intensive process, but the kapa had a long life. Hawaiian kapa was used for clothing, blankets, and at the very end feminine hygiene products.

Hawaiian Renaissance

With the introduction of woven cloth, Hawaiian kapa slowly disappeared. It wasn’t until the 1960s when artisans began kapa making again to restore the old Hawaiian tradition. Today Hawaiian kapa is crafted and decorated as a form of art. 

I remember decorating kapa in elementary school for a history lesson. What are your experiences with kapa?

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