Kuku Kapa
Ka makani kāʻili kapa o Nuʻuanu.
The garment-snatching wind of Nuʻuanu.
— (ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1464)

What are you wearing today? What do you like about it? Is it the color, design, feel, or maybe even the smell of your clothes? The clothmakers of old Hawaiʻi took all of this into consideration when they made their kapa.

Kapa is the fibrous cloth our kūpuna wore to protect themselves from the natural elements and to adorn their bodies. But, like most other things in Hawaiʻi, our kūpuna took clothing to another level. The finest kapa textures and designs in the Pacific were produced right here. Early Westerners compared Hawaiian kapa to the finest woven cloths produced in Europe and Asia.

Kapa is most often made by women. It comes from the inner fiber, or bast, of various plants. The bast is processed by soaking and pounding until it is the desired size and texture. Kapa is also decorated with dyes, paints, and perfumes to produce beautiful designs.

The Origins of Kapa

Ka ua Pōpōkapa o Nuʻuanu.
The tapa-bundling rain of Nuʻuanu.
The Pōpōkapa rain is so called because anyone who came up Nuʻuanu Pali from the windward side had to bundle his garments and hold his arms against his chest to keep from getting wet.
(ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1601)

 

There are several accounts of the origin of kapa in Hawaiʻi. One moʻolelo tells of how the akua (gods) Kāne and Kanaloa realized that one of their worshipers was cold. Feeling compassion, they taught the man how to make kapa to keep himself warm. The people of Oʻahu were astonished by the new clothes, and the man taught everyone what he learned.

The goddess Hina is famous in Hawaiʻi and Tahiti for her kapa making. She left traces of her kapa tools across the Hawaiian Islands. And that is also how some of our kūpuna learned to make kapa.

Another account shows how we got some of our akua kapa. It also tells about the first appearance of wauke, which is one of many plants used to make kapa and is favored by Hawaiʻi kapa makers. A man named Maikoha lived in Nuʻuanu Valley on Oʻahu with his two daughters, Lauhuki and Laʻahana. Maikoha became ill because of the cold weather sent by an ʻeʻepa (a troublemaking spirit). He knew he was going to die, so he instructed his daughters to bury him next to the stream. A short time later a wauke tree grew in the place he was buried. Lauhuki and Laʻahana perfected kapa-making from this time. And so, Lauhuki became an akua for kapa beaters, Laʻahana an akua of stamping and printing designs, and Maikoha an akua of growing wauke. The originator of ribbed kapa, a man named Ehu, became an akua of coloring kapa.



Kapa dyes can be scented with lauaʻe (fern), and the finished kapa itself rolled up with fragrant maile leaves or ʻiliahi (sandalwood) chips.


Kuku Kapa (Making Kapa)

Pepeʻe a palaholo.
A rolled-up frond—paste for tapa cloth.

Said of the ʻamaʻu fern, which furnishes sap used in tapa-making. Implies the same thought as the saying, “Great oaks from little acorns grow.”
(ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #2625)

 

The making of kapa is a sacred activity. Traditionally it was not done in public. A person beating kapa was not to be interrupted. Those skilled in kapa making were called loea, or experts.

Making kapa starts with the planting of and caring for wauke. Wauke is grown from cuttings or shoots from a mature plant. The small branches are removed and the stalk is grown straight to create uniform plants. When the trunk of the wauke is one inch in diameter and six feet tall, the stalk is harvested. An ʻopihi shell is used to scrape off the outer bark. The inner fiber is then carefully peeled off the stalk and beaten with a hohoa, or wooden mallet. Beaten strips of wauke, called moʻomoʻo, are rolled up and placed in water to soak.

Once the moʻomoʻo are softened and fermented, they are beaten with a second kind of kapa beater called an iʻe kuku. The iʻe kuku has varying designs carved into each of its four sides. The iʻe kuku is used to further develop the texture of the kapa. It also creates a unique watermark, or pattern, on the finished kapa. The making of iʻe kuku was its own occupation, undertaken by male experts called kāhuna hole iʻe kuku.

I hole ʻia nō ka iʻe i ke kau o ka lā.
The time to cut designs in a tapa beater is when the sun is high.
Do your work when you can do your best.
(ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1164)

 

Several pieces of moʻomoʻo could be beaten together, producing one larger, seamless piece. Only the Hawaiian kapa making process creates such seamlessness.

Later the kapa is colored with dyes. The dyes can be applied with stamps called ʻohe kāpala. Pink, black, green, red, yellow, and pale blue could be produced from different plants and berries. Additional steps are used to make the kapa shiny, waterproof, and fragrant.

Finished kapa was used as malo (men’s loin cloth), pāʻū (women’s skirt), kīhei (shawl), and kapa moe (blanket).


Kuku Kapa Today

With the arrival of Westerners came the introduction of Western woven materials of all shapes and colors. It became much easier to acquire Western cloth and clothing than it was to make kapa. The practice of kapa-making became scarce. However, the art of kapa-making still survives today.


There is a new surge of kumu (teachers) who have been teaching this ʻōiwi (native) art to the next generation of kapa makers. Today the art of kapa-making is highly prized. Kapa can be seen in museums, galleries, and art shows. Kapa is also being reestablished as an ʻōiwi fashion and is utilized in hula competitions and lua sham battles.

Kapa-making today is still a spiritual practice. Kapa is made for kānaka ʻōiwi to care for iwi kūpuna, or ancestral bones. Unfortunately, it is common for Hawaiian burials to be disturbed by modern activities such as development. When this happens, kapa is used to wrap the bones and rebury them.