One of the things that set Hawaiian kapa apart from all others in the pacific was the use of a very wide range of colors. Although the first Polynesians to Hawaii came with the raw plant materials and knowledge of how to make kapa, the time and distance away from their south pacific cousins produced a very different type of cloth.




Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

A study of kapa dating back from pre-contact times (1778, arrival of Capt. James Cook) shows a very geometric and eclectic style of kapa design. The predominant element is the use of lines to create and delineate space and colors. This kapa housed in an Aotearoa museum is a wonderful example of the kapa of that time.

A close up look at this kapa shows that the stamps are actually made of some natural material such as a cut stem of a plant, rather than the carved markings of the 'ohe kapala stamp.



Hawaiian vocabulary was rich in words and names for every aspect of kapa production. For instance, in research done by Benton Kealii Pang, he talked about the "hālu'a" design (shown on beater above); "The wavy lines of the halu'a beater is literally translated "flimsy petiole" (Pukui and Elbert 1987). The term is a combination of the words 'hā' an upright stalk or petiole of the kalo plant (Colocasia esculenta) and 'lu'a', an adjective that describes something pliable or soft.


Hawaiian Kapa, Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii

Collection of California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, California

In some kapa, pounded as fine as tissue such as this piece housed in the California Academy of Sciences Natural History Museum in San Francisco, the watermark, which is beaten into the cloth itself as opposed to being applied to the surface, completes the design. The white pattern of this kapa is actually the light coming thru the cloth itself. Colors skillfully applied over the watermarked kapa can enhance the embossed appearance of such a cloth.

Kapa by Dalani Tanahy 2007



In Peter Bucks book, Arts and Crafts of Hawaii, "Clothing", the author catalogued an enormous collection of native 'ohe kapala or bamboo stamps. The designs are many and varied, predominantly straight line geometrics with the occasional leaf or round shape. The fine craftsmanship is evident in the delicate intricacy of these stamps. Some were even repaired when they had cracked from use. A few had carved parts made of tortoise shell and were painstakingly tied onto the bamboo handle. Some designs have meanings that are interpretations of the things that Hawaiians were accoustomed to seeing in day to day life such as the feathers of a bird, the bones of a fish, the teeth of a shark and variations of those themes.



Looking at these images, each horizontal row representing an individual stamp design, it's apparent that the craftsmen of that time had no problem spinning a simple variation of a shape in endless ways. People often ask me if there are meanings to all the designs. While there are interpretations of some of the hundreds of known stamps, much of that information has been lost to us now.













"Maui Hō'eha" Kapa by Dalani Tanahy 2008
Collection of Nana'ikapono Community Museum

Detail "Hele La" Kapa by Dalani Tanahy 2008

Collection of Nanaikapono Community Museum

Dye Making

'Ohe kapala were so versatile and one single design could be used in many configurations, making design possibilities endless. Hawaiian artists were also adept at utilizing positive and negative space in striking and imaginative ways. Of course, stamping, like pounding, was a very time consuming task.

Hawaiians were such scientists when it came to dye making. Not content with the basic earth tones of brown, black and red, they discovered was to use virtually every part of the plant to extract some sort of color. Some dyes went a step further and had various other components added to them to change or fix colors. For example, the root bark of the Noni (Morinda citrifolia) tree will make a bright yellow dye. When burnt coral is added to it, it becomes red.

Many colors became distinct names of certain kapa. 'Ohelohelo was a light red kapa, named for the 'ohelo berries that gave it its color. 'Oni'oni'o was a spotted or streaked kapa. There are many many words in Hawaiian to describe the different colors and color design variations used in kapa making.


(Photo: "Ualena O Ka'ala" kapa by Dalani Tanahy modeled by Nani Valoroso 2008)

Coconut milk mixed with ash made a silvery gray dye

The sap from the inner bark of the kukui or candlenut makes a deep red-brown dye.

The berries from the 'uki'uki make various shades of green and blue, depending on where the berries are grown and possibly variations of the species.



This native red clay known as 'alae'a or ociferous earth was not only dye but also a medicine. Its high iron content made it very suitable for blood problems. It was not only red but could also be found in purple, yellow, shades of green and blue to white.