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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 17, 2006

Mulberry-bark fabric was an ingenious adaptation

By Duane Choy

Bark of the paper mulberry, wauke in Hawaiian, could with consider-able labor be made into clothing, bedding and other useful items.

Duane Choy

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In early Polynesia, weaving from the hair/wool of mammals was nonexistent, and there was no fiber source of cotton, hemp, flax or silk.

The premier plant material in Hawai'i for fabric was wauke or paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera. Hawaiians excelled in its manifestations through kapa cloth.

One ancient legend reveals the story of Maikoha, who after living years with his daughters, became weak and ill. Nearing death, he summoned his daughters and commanded them to carefully obey his instructions: "When I die, bury my body close to the waters of our pleasant stream. A tree will grow from that burial place. This tree will be to you for kapa, from which you will make all things good for clothing as well as covering when you sleep or are ill. The bark of this tree is the part you will use."

After Maikoha died, his daughters dutifully carried out his bidding and a new plant, such as they had never seen before, with small spreading branches, grew at his burial site. It was the wauke tree.

The daughters believed it was a gift from the 'aumakua, or spirits of ancestors. Reverently, they removed some branches, stripped off the bark and pounded the pieces until they were meshed into a crude type of cloth. Thus they made kapa, "the beaten thing."

Ideally, wauke thrives in moist areas where soil is rich, and with protection from wind. In cultivation, the plants were kept small. Keiki grew from roots of established plants, and thus the wauke grove extended its 'ohana.

Growers cut off the side branches to produce straight stalks for later stripping without the branch holes. In six to nine months, the trunk shoots were cut and the tops and roots removed. The bark was slit and peeled away. Inner bark fibers, called bast, were soaked in running water with stone weights placed on the fiber stacks. This washed away the starch and began the process of breaking the woody fibers. Meticulous further soakings and fermentation resulted in fine fibers of the moist inner bark.

Women would then spread the strips of inner bark into numerous layers of uniform thickness. When the water drained away, fibers attached together and the whole bundle was carried as one mass. This was named mo'omo'o, and was beaten and sun-dried. The mo'omo'o bundles were sometimes layered between mai'a (banana) leaves to further soften them by fermenting. These bundles were then laid over wooden anvils called kua kuku. Women would strike the wauke pulp with a wooden beater called hohoa, until solid strips formed. The rhythm of this kapa beating resonated through the village.

Wauke strips were soaked again, and with each subsequent beating, the cloth expanded. The first beating is called ho'omo'omo'o, the second pounding kuku, and the third ho'oki.

Clothing made from kapa included the kikepa (a wrap); the pa'u (sarong, lava lava or pareau), the principal female garment; the malo (loincloth) for men; sandals, hula adornment and the kihei (cape).

Bedding material consisted of kapa moe (single sheets of kapa) and kapa ku'ina (several layers of kapa stitched along one side with wauke cordage for colder weather). The top layer was called kilohana and was customarily dyed and decorated.

Kapa was also essential as a burial covering. Pieces of kapa were further incorporated as decoration on ipu (gourd) helmets, sewn as borders on feathered capes and cloaks, molded into balls for games, fashioned as flags or banners for the heiau, as wicks in lamps, for kite tails, uliuli (hula rattles) coverings, loop handles on ipu heke (gourd drums), as bandages and for all-purpose cordage.

Wauke had medicinal applications for the Hawaiians, who believed that if it was worn around the neck of a nursing mother, it would induce the flow of milk.

The superlative quality of Hawaiian kapa cloth from the wauke plant produced a fabric that was water-resistant, soft, warm, durable, pliable, washable, mothproof and a pure white color.

A magnificent lesson in functional everyday usefulness came from reincarnated wauke fibers that showcased the botanical ingenuity of Hawaiians.