The Meditative Quality of Hawaii's Traditional Textile Craft

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The Meditative Quality of Hawaii's Traditional Textile Craft

sabra kauak pounding kapaIt’s mid-afternoon, the sun is pounding, and Sabra Kauka and I take cover under the shade of a robust noni tree, native to Polynesia, also known as the Indian mulberry, a tree that produces a fruit renowned for its medicinal properties--and smell. Some liken the aroma to blue cheese.

In pop culture, a complimentary word used to describe women is “fierce.” With traditional Hawaiian features—a strong nose, prominent cheekbones, certain jawline—Sabra Kauka certainly looks fierce. When she says, “There’s one rule to kapa,” I straighten my back and listen.

“What’s that?” I ask. We’re talking about barkcloth, the primary textile used in Hawaii before missionaries arrived with their colorful, woven fabrics.

“Only aloha,” she says, a smile erupting across her face. Sabra has a smile as warm as a slice of banana bread hot out of the oven--and when she smiles, she manages to look both fierce and welcoming at the same time.

In Old Hawaii, it was generally the women who made kapa—from the inside bark of, primarily, wauke, the paper mulberry bush—and they did so in groups, much like my grandmothers participated in quilting bees, and what Sabra means is that while stripping, pounding and stamping the bark that would become cloth in which to wrap a baby, bless a marriage, or bind the bones of loved ones passed on, only good, positive, loving thoughts and comments were allowed.

It’s a rule I think that could be used in all parts and across all walks of life.

We’re standing inside a fenced area of some 5,000 square feet. When I visit at the end of summer, brown is the predominant color dulling the landscape outside the fence. Inside, 23 different species of native and culturally important plants grow—painting the area green. A goat skull sits atop one of the fence posts, a visible reminder of the very thing the “exclosure” is intended to keep out.

Nualolo Kai is located at the western, dryer end of Napali Coast, a stretch of cliffs and valleys lined up like dominoes along northwestern Kauai. One feature that once made Nualolo Kai a popular settlement, however, was the presence of an underground spring.

Today, long after the last inhabitants vacated this valley, the spring continues to flow and on summer work trips organized by Na Pali Coast Ohana, a non-profit under the guidance of Sabra, a water tank is filled to help irrigate the plants inside the exclosure.

michi pounding kapa on beach

In the corner where we stand, a dozen or so sticks of wauke grow, their leaf edges tinged brown from the dry summer. We cut one, about six feet tall and an inch in diameter. Sabra uses the sharp edge of an opihi shell to scrape off the outer bark. When that’s done, she’ll split one end of the stick and peel off the outer layer of bark and start beating it, felting strips together to create one piece approximately 18 by 36 inches.

But while we’re out and walking about, Sabra takes me to an area in the back of the valley. In the dense shade of a noni grove, numerous gravesites are clustered. She points to a gathering of dark lava rocks in a rectangular shape.

“That’s where the iwi will go,” she says.

Sabra is referring to 42 fragments of bones that are being returned to Nualolo Kai for re-burial.

In the 1950s, a member of one of the last families that lived in Nualolo Kai watched as historical treasures and artifacts started disappearing from the valley. He invited Bishop Museum to come and conduct an archaeological study. A complex of house sites, ceremonial platforms, agricultural features and walled enclosures were mapped. Artifacts were taken for study. So, too, human bones. Many of the bones were reinterred two weeks before Hurricane `Iniki targeted Kauai on September 11, 1992. Now, long delayed, another 42 fragments of bones are being returned to Nualolo Kai. And Sabra is making the kapa that will wrap the bones.

Back at our campsite, I finish stripping off the outer bark of the branch we cut while another woman beats another strip.

“We pound the dickens out of it,” Sabra says when I ask her the ways in which Hawaiian kapa is different from that found elsewhere in the Pacific. The pounding makes the cloth extra soft. The Hawaiian tradition also included soaking the bark for several days, practically until it fermented, but perhaps the most honored Hawaiian characteristic when it comes to kapa--based on the spark in Sabra’s eyes when she tells me--is this: a watermark.

close up of hands removing barkThe initial beating of kapa utilizes a round wooden beater—called hohoa—over a stone anvil--kua. The second and subsequent beatings involve a square beater—called ie kuku--over a wooden anvil. One side of the ie kuku was smooth but the other sides might have designs, which when pounded into the kapa creates a lasting impression.

In Sabra’s case, one side of her ie kuku was made with interconnecting small “x’s,” representing the very large “x” at the back wall of the valley in Nualolo Kai.

Sitting on a plaited, lau hala mat, the plink, plink, plink of ie kuku over kua, wood on wood, provides a steady and mesmerizing beat to the afternoon, and I can just imagine how the demi-god Maui’s mother Hina must have felt when she complained there wasn’t enough light in the day to pound and dry her kapa.  In response, so the legend goes, Maui lassoed the sun to slow its traverse across the sky and lengthen our days.

Pounding kapa is pleasant, trance-like work but work that all but died out in Hawaii, relegating its only existence to an exhibit in a museum. In an interesting twist, however, it was the ancestors who resurrected the craft—or, at least, it was the need for kapa to reinter the bones of ancestors that prevented kapa’s extinction as an art practiced today. Sabra is helping ensure kapa making lives a long, healthy life, as she teaches others—especially the young people--around Kauai the craft.

Once the pounding and drying is complete, Sabra will dye the cloth with noni found in Nualolo Kai. That will give it a buttery yellow color. After that, she’ll stamp it. Hawaii’s kapa is known for its earthy colors of red, yellow, browns and blacks and geometric and asymmetrical patterns.

Sabra says that kapa found in the valley includes the motif of coral polyps, so she’ll probably include a similar motif in her design for the final 42 fragments of bones making their journey home to Nulolo Kai. And probably the “x,” as well. Beyond that, she’s not sure what the final design will take at this point. But what she does know is the design will tell a story. Because that’s one other thing about Hawaiian kapa—and all Hawaiian arts and crafts. It’s heavy with what Sabra calls kaona. That is, deeper meaning and hidden codes.

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