Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tapa Cloth

Larry and I had an opportunity to go to a cultural demonstration showing various aspect of traditional Samoan life.  One of the things I appreciated the most was seeing how they make tapa cloth.

Tapa cloth is a much sought after souvenir for many who visit the Pacific Islands.  Made from the inner layer of bark from certain trees - most often the  paper mulberry saplings (called u'a in Samoa) but also sometimes from breadfruit or fig trees, the cloth is decorated with various designs that traditionally were unique to the particular village where it was made.

For detailed history and information about tapa cloth you can see http://www.tapapacifica.com/
From that site: "Each culture has its own indigenous name for bark cloth and each retains its own characteristic techniques for producing it.  In Tonga it is called Ngatu, in Samoa - Siapo, in Nuie - Hiapo and in Fiji it is known as Masi."

The saplings that are grown for making tapa cloth are carefully tended, keeping all leaves stripped off the length of the plants to create one straight piece with no branches.  They are harvested when they are about 2 inches in diameter.

The bark  is carefully stripped off in one piece with a skilled hand.

After stripping the bark from the limb and separating the inner and outer layers, the soft inner material is soaked in water.  It is then scraped with a clam shell against a board to remove any remaining pieces of the outer bark and to softens the material, spreading out the fibers. Two different kinds of shells are used:  first a serrated shell and then a smoother one. This step takes quite a lot of exertion and care to get the material spread evenly without tearing it.

Next the cloth is beaten with a wooden mallet that is has flat sides and a rounded side.  This beating process thins out and stretches the material,  The steady whacking of the mallet against the cloth is a sound common to village life. When the beating process is complete, the artist making the material will carefully check for any holes or tears which will be patched by gluing on small patches with a tapioca paste.  This is why it is so important to take great care when the sapling is growing, because any place where a leaf was growing or a branch starting to bud out will create a hole in the bark.

This gluing with tapioca is also how the larger ceremonial pieces or curtain pieces are made, by attaching several of the small sections together.

Once the piece is spread evenly and all holes are patched, it is layed out with stones to keep it stretched while it dries.

When the piece is fully prepared it comes time to create the design.  Some pieces are painted by hand.  More commonly in Samoa they are placed on a wooden template that has the desired design carved into it.  The artist beats the cloth against the template to make the pattern embed into the fibers.  Then dyes made from different trees are added to create the shading desired.  Different plants result in different colors, which is why tapa from other regions will have a distinctive look.  Nearly all the tapa we saw in Samoa was dyed with browns and blacks with some limited uses of red for detail.

 Tapa cloth is used in nearly all ceremonies and rites of passage.  It has been a significant part of Polynesian cultures for thousands of years.   Whether holding a piece of common tapa made for sale in the tourist market or looking at the vintage museum pieces, I can't help but feel some awe for the effort that went into making these.  Even when using a template that will create the same basic design in dozens or even hundreds of pieces, each finished piece will be unique to the artist who made it.

Photo of Tapa Room from http://www.tapapacifica.com/
Now when I consider the tapa room I saw in the Robert Louis Stevenson museum  "Villa Vailima" the first week we were in Samoa I have a whole new appreciation for the work that went into creating those pieces.

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