Kapa: Fabric of a Culture

Pua Van Dorpe has spent a lifetime pursuing her passion—reclaiming this ancient and lost Hawaiian art.

Story by Rita Goldman

kapa makingAt the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki, there’s a sculpture of three native women at work beside a running stream. Their beauty is Polynesian rather than Western, graceful, composed and strong.

Nearby, a plaque recounts this legend: Long ago, a Hawaiian man named Maikoha told his daughters that when he died, they were to bury him beside a stream and watch for a sapling that would grow from his grave. When the tree reached the height of a warrior chief, they were to cut it down, strip its bark, and clean and soak the bark in water. They were then to beat the bark to soften its fibers, bleach it in the sun, dye and decorate it, and give it a finish that would keep the colors bright. The result would be a cloth fine enough for even the highest chief.

Maikoha’s daughters did all that their father asked. Lauhuki proved to excel at preparing the bark cloth, La‘ahana at creating the dyes, inks, and designs that gave it its beauty. Hawaiians came to venerate the sisters as ‘aumakua—deities of the intricate art of kapa making.

In the sculpture, the two standing women are the mythic sisters Lauhuki and La‘ahana. The seated figure depicts a real-life, contemporary Hawaiian who has become perhaps as legendary: Puanani Kanemura Van Dorpe, the woman who has made it her life’s mission to resurrect this ancient art.

Throughout Polynesia, and across millennia, traditional cultures have created cloth from bark. The Fijians call it masi, the Tahitians tapa. But in all the Pacific Islands, no people so elevated the art as did the Hawaiians, who named their bark cloth kapa. Europeans, exploring the Pacific in the 1700s, were captivated by the quality of Hawaiian cloth. Captain James Cook himself extolled kapa’s “superiority” and “high degree of integrity.”

“Hawaiians . . . achieved the highest form of this medium,” writes Louise Allrich in FiberArts magazine. “The process  . . . is far more complicated than any other bark cloth and the result is a fine, transparent, strong, complex, and soft fabric.”

That laborious process occupied much of the Hawaiian woman’s day. Her handiwork wrapped newborn babes in comfort, clothed children and adults in exquisite patterns and colors, provided layers of warmth to sleep beneath, and shrouded the departed at life’s end. Kapa was also used as payment for taxes, and served as tribute to gods and ali‘i. Yet all that knowledge, all the skills honed over generations, disappeared within a century of the arrival of Western man.

Pua loosens the bark with her teeth to gain a fingerhold.
Pua loosens the bark with her teeth to gain a fingerhold.

Scholars like the University of Hawai‘i’s Dr. Rubellite Kawena-Johnson, and the Bishop Museum’s Dr. Roger Rose, cite a number of reasons for its demise, among them the advent of cheap, imported cotton cloth; the discontinuance of kapa as a form of currency; the destruction of the native plants that provided bark and dyes; and the disappearance of the kapa makers themselves, as introduced diseases decimated the Hawaiian population. By the time Puanani Van Dorpe was born, authentic Hawaiian kapa existed only in a handful of private collections and museums.

Her grandmother’s Hawaiian blood flows through Puanani’s veins. Hawaiian rhythms guided her footsteps when she was young and working as a hula dancer in Waikiki. Yet the quest that would define her life began almost by accident. In the 1970s, Pua was a happily married lady of leisure. Her husband, Robert, had been recruited to develop a cultural center in Fiji. While Bob implemented the plans for the center, Pua occupied her time with golf.

“I played every single day for six years,” she says, relaxing on the lanai of the Van Dorpes’ home in Honaunau, on the Big Island. “I was the first Hawaiian to play in the Fiji Open.”

One day a Fijian chief who had befriended the Van Dorpes told them that his mother was returning to her native island of Vatulele after decades away, and invited Pua along. Bob and their good friend, Hawaiian artist and historian Herb Kane, urged her to go. The women of Vatulele were renowned for the quality of their masi. This would be a rare    opportunity to see them at work. Half-reluctantly, Pua agreed. “I thought, being the project manager’s wife, that I’d be taken there by yacht,” she laughs. “It was a small boat, filled with pigs and chickens, bananas and kerosene!” When she asked the boatman where Vatulele lay, he gestured toward the empty horizon.

The Van Dorpes’ daughter, Kapuailohia, accompanied Pua those thirty-five miles in the open boat. “I was six years old,” Kapua remembers. “It was a difficult trip, but there’s a longing to go back there. The first sound we heard was the pounding of the beaters. Then we saw the grass shacks, children running around, and people gathering to greet the chief’s mother.”

The coiled bark is soaked to soften the fibers.
The coiled bark is soaked to soften the fibers.

Because she had arrived in the company of royalty, Pua was given unprecedented access to the masi makers of Vatulele. She found herself immersed not only in observing their traditional techniques, but the camaraderie of the women, the meditative quality in the way they beat the cloth, the deep spirituality infused in every aspect of their work. Later she would tell the story of walking with them past a grove of mulberry trees, and “as if they were whispering a prayer, the women put their hands together with a soft clapping, a Fijian sign of respect usually given only to a chief.”

Pua stayed on Vatulele for ten days and returned transformed. She never played golf again. “She came away with a burning desire to learn more, and never looked back,” Bob recalls.

When the Van Dorpes relocated to Hawai‘i, Pua avidly explored the Bishop Museum’s unparalleled collection of pre-Contact Hawaiian bark cloth. She volunteered to help inventory the collection, began consulting with kupuna (elders), and read everything she could find on kapa making. Although there were more than 1,000 references, they had been written by observers from outside the culture, and proved on practical application to be of little use. So Pua turned to the ancient legends and chants, relying on native speakers like Kawena-Johnson and Fred Kalani Meineke, an assistant professor in Hawaiian studies, who helped her navigate the metaphors and spiritual meanings of the language.

pua-with-wauke-saplingPua began experimenting with native plants and minerals. Her first challenge was to find the trees from whose bark the cloth is made.

The ancient Hawaiians were masters at adapting the materials of the natural world. One of the few plants they cultivated was wauke, or paper mulberry, from which the majority of their kapa was made. “When I started,” Pua says ruefully, “I didn’t even know what the wauke plant looked like.”

“The wauke variety that has the best results has an ovate leaf with serrated edges and red veins underneath,” says Bob. “Pua asked at the arboretums, but there was none to be had. She talked with a state forest ranger, Bob Hobdy, who said he had heard of it, but not seen it. Pua thought it was extinct.

Pua and Sam Ka‘ai returning from ‘Iao Valley with root stock for planting and sticks for immediate use.
Pua and Sam Ka‘ai returning from ‘Iao Valley with root stock for planting and sticks for immediate use.

“Three weeks later, Hobdy comes to see Pua and says, ‘I found a plantation of wauke in ‘Iao Valley, 800 feet up a cliff.’ Pua went in with Sam Ka‘ai [a master woodcarver and cultural practitioner]. She was gone all day, and came back disheveled. I’ve got a picture of Sam pulling Pua up that cliff, tied to a rope.”

Slips and cuttings from those trees in ‘Iao Valley became the foundation of a four-and-a-half-acre wauke orchard from which Pua obtains her bark. Over the years, many others  have helped in her research. One of the first was Wesley Wong, a state forester from Maui. Among his many efforts on her behalf, Wong organized an expedition to Kaua‘i to find a native lily, the skin of whose berries yields a particular blue dye.

Imoku and Lehua Pali provided the taro patch whose mud, over the course of a week, will stain buried kapa a rich, deep black. Dr. Mark Hagedone, a forensic  scientist, helped analyze the hundreds of materials Pua explored to discover which ones her ancestors had used to achieve their vibrant colors and the mordant to fix those colors and keep them from fading. “Mark approached the project like you would investigate a murder,” Kapua says. “Mom had little jars set up like a chemistry set. She’d fill them with fibers or ashes and give them to Mark to analyze.”

kapa fibers
Once the fibers are softened, Pua scrapes the outer bark clean with a wa‘u, a seashell tool.

One of Pua’s important contributors was LeVan Sequiera, a Maui woodworker and canoe builder who has researched traditional Hawaiian implements for nearly half a century. Working with Pua, and basing his replications on centuries-old artifacts at the Bishop Museum, Sequiera created the various hohoa, or wooden beaters, for softening and spreading the bark’s fibers: round hohoa for the initial pounding, four-sided beaters whose carved patterns create the watermarks embossed into kapa at a later stage. On each of those four sides, Sequiera carved a different watermark pattern—a painstaking, trial-and-error process, since, like Pua, the woodworker was reinventing a vanished art. Too sharp an edge, and the tool tore through the kapa; too rounded, and it left an indistinct mark.

Though he hastens to downplay his role in her efforts, Pua’s most vital partner has been her husband, Bob Van Dorpe. Without him, she’ll tell you, she could not have rescued kapa-making from oblivion. It was he who encouraged her passion for the art, he who persuaded an O‘ahu collector to sell the Van Dorpes small sections of sixty-five kapas from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to give Pua original material to model her own against. One Christmas, he gave her a microscope. “She was always saying she could never be sure that her work is as fine a quality as the ones made 200 years ago. The only way for her to tell is to compare them under the microscope.”

While her research employs Western technology in the service of this ancient craft, in the actual making of kapa, Pua uses only traditional tools and techniques. She is the twenty-first-century Hawaiian, moving between cultural practices and modern times. Dressed in a mu‘umu‘u or a simple pareo, she sits cross-legged on a lauhala mat, slicing down the length of a harvested wauke sapling with a niho ‘oki (shark-tooth knife), then stripping the bark away by hand. Kneeling beside a pohaku kua, a stone anvil, she takes up the mole-hohoa, the smooth, round beater, and begins the first stage of flattening the fibers. Barefoot, she clambers down a rocky coastline to immerse her kapa in a tide pool to soften the fibers; or wades into a taro lo‘i to bury the kapa in its mud. Her slim, manicured fingers lift slippery balls of fiber pulp from an above-ground imu in which, wrapped in banana leaves, they’ve fermented for weeks. Those same fingers again curl around a hohoa, beating the fibers into a seamless felt—beating for as many as ten hours a day.

imu oven
Pua’s daughter, Kapua, lays the balls of fiber between banana leaves and sets them in the sun, creating an aboveground imu (oven) where the fibers will heat and ferment.

Then, like a time traveler, Pua dons contemporary dress to sit at her microscope, surrounded by textbooks, or pore over file drawers filled with detailed information on the myriad plants and soils she’s studied, the methods for extracting their fibers or dyes: red from a finely ground clay found on Kaua‘i; the pink of ‘akala, an indigenous wild raspberry; ‘olena (turmeric) for yellow and gold. Reading glasses perched on her nose, Pua meticulously records for future generations the knowledge she has spent thirty-five years retrieving.

“Kapa-making brought me close to my Hawaiian heritage. I have learned how to be a Hawaiian. I have learned discipline. I have learned what the Hawaiian woman went through to make her kapa—and that’s not all that she did! There were many times that I wanted to give up, but every time I lift that hohoa, the round beaters, or the i‘e kuku [a finishing beater] and the fibers started to move, I felt like that Hawaiian woman. I wanted to walk in her footsteps, to let the world know what this Hawaiian woman did.’ Every kapa that I have made is a part of me. And that part is Hawaiian.”

In 1990, Pua was named a Living Treasure of Hawai‘i. She has lectured at Harvard and Hawai‘i’s prestigious Kamehameha schools. Researchers at the Bishop Museum have declared her kapa indistinguishable, even microscopically, from samples predating Western contact more than 200 years ago.

In 1993, 175 years after his death, the body of Henry ‘Opukahaia, the first Hawaiian Christian, was sent back from New England to his family in Honaunau. At their request, Pua created the burial kapa in which he is now laid to rest. The following year, Father Damien’s holy relics were returned to Hawai‘i, wrapped in the kapa of Pua Van Dorpe. Her most massive project came in 1990, when site preparation for the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, unearthed the bones of more than 1,000 ancient Hawaiians. Pua organized and trained fourteen Hawaiian women. Together, they worked tirelessly for four months to create the kapa in which, with ritual ceremony, the bones were reburied.

One of the few places on Maui where you can see examples of Pua’s work in person is the King Kamehameha Golf Clubhouse in Waikapu. Though the course is private, the clubhouse is open to the public, and proudly displays eleven panels of kapa commissioned of Pua Van Dorpe, each honoring a historic Maui chief. Beside the framed kapa are the stories of those long-ago leaders, and nearby is Herb Kane’s mural depicting them.

Pua beating the fibers into a felt that can expand seamlessly into any size.
Pua beating the fibers into a felt that can expand seamlessly into any size.

Pua is in her seventies now; the more arduous tasks of kapa-making she must leave to daughter Kapua, who has sat at her mother’s side since childhood, learning the craft in the traditional way of alaka‘i (apprentices), by observation and practice. “When we’re sitting in the halau, all the knowledge is being given to me without a lot of speaking,” says Kapua. “Don’t get me wrong—we laugh and have fun, but when it comes to the kapa, it’s a silent transmission from mother to daughter of everything she’s learned and done. I’m not in a rush to graduate. There’s so much to learn, it’ll take another lifetime.

“In the very beginning, Mom would make a piece and ask my dad and me what we thought of it, and we’d say it was nice. And she’d say, ‘Nah, not good enough.’ And she’d rip it up, months of work, and start over. Now I understand. If you’re going to do it, you have to do it right. That’s what the Hawaiians did.

“I am so in awe of what I have from my mom. People I?meet ask what I do. I say, ‘Well, sit down. It’s not a simple answer.’

Kapa grabs you and brings you in, and then you’re lost,” Kapua says, then shakes her head. “No. You’re found.”

Pua with a wauke sapling.

The Making of Kapa

The Hawaiian process of kapa-making is more complex than that of any other Polynesian culture. Different materials and desired outcomes require different procedures—Pua Van Dorpe has rediscovered fourteen methods for wauke (paper mulberry) alone.

The photos tell some of that story: Pua selecting a wauke sapling that’s ready to harvest; Pua and Sam Ka‘ai returning from ‘Iao Valley with root stock for planting and sticks for immediate use. Employing only the tools her ancestors had, Pua makes an incision down the length of the sapling, using a shark-tooth knife, then loosens the bark with her teeth to gain a fingerhold, strips the bark by hand, and fastens each strip in a coil.

Next, the coiled bark is soaked to soften the fibers, as shown in the bottom-left photo. (Depending on the intended results, Pua may instead weigh the bark down with rocks in a fresh-water stream or a salt-water tide pool.) Once the fibers have softened, she scrapes the outer bark clean with a wa‘u, the seashell tool shown at bottom, second from left. Then the clean bark is placed in the sun to dry and bleach, in preparation for the first stage of pounding. Flattened on a pohaku kua (stone anvil), the bark is beaten until the fibers spread out to several times their original size. These sheets are again dried in the sun, then torn into small strips that are soaked in water again and formed into soggy balls of fiber pulp. Pua’s daughter, Kapua, lays the balls of fiber between banana leaves and sets them in the sun, creating an aboveground imu (oven) where the fibers will heat and ferment.

The Hawaiians were the only Polynesians who fermented fiber—which helps explain the superiority of their kapa over other bark cloth. Fermenting breaks the fibers down so that it can be beaten into a felt and expanded seamlessly to any size. A single kapa can take eight or nine months to beat, and it takes practice to achieve a uniform thickness. “When the fiber is wet,” says Kapua, “you can tell the thickness only by touch and sound—you can hear the difference in the tap-tap-tap, tok-tok-tok. When the fiber is dry, you can see the difference.”

Hawaiians also excelled at dyes and inked patterns, achieving a rainbow of colors from the plants and minerals around them. But even an undecorated kapa is beautiful, bearing embossed watermarks like the ones in the bottom right photo.

Sources for this article included the April/May 2000 issue of FiberArts magazine, and the 1991 documentary Legacy of Excellence. Inquiries on kapa commissions are welcome; call Robert Van Dorpe, (808) 328-9386.