Kapa Making and Processing

wauke The first thing needed for good kapa is good trees. In ancient times, all families would grow their own wauke (paper mulberry) for their use. The men would care for and cultivate these plants. Wauke can grow in a wide range of soil and sunlight conditions but always requires steady watering to maintain even growth. Because this plant grows very quickly, trees that experience wet and then dry conditions tend to develop scars on the bark that making stripping the tree difficult. The optimal trees for making fine kapa are between 6' to 12 ' tall and harvested before they are two years old. The diameter should be a little larger than a broom stick. Trees taken when they are too old will be difficult to work.

Two of the varieties that are grown in Hawaii and make good kapa are called 'Laumana' or 'Manalima", because of the lobes in the leaves and 'Poa'aha" which looks more like Mamaki with its rounder leaves and red leaf veins. Laumana has a straighter growing habit that requires less attention while the Poa'aha tends to be very branchy. Wauke reproduces by sending out runners from which new trees will grow very rapidly. They will also travel under brick walls and along driveways and into the neighbor's yards. The best way to propagate new plants for planting in other areas is by carefully taking baby plants from the ground, making sure to keep its root intact. Remove all the leaves except the top bud to help prevent shock and place in a pot of soil and out of direct sunlight. Within two weeks new leaves should appear if the roots took to their new home. In about two months the trees will have developed a sturdy root system and can be placed in the yard. A drip line and mulch will maintain constant moisture.


A man stripping Wauke TreeAfter the trees are harvested, it is best to strip the outer skin ('ili) within a few days. If the skin dries on the stalk it will be very difficult to remove. Traditionally Hawaiians used various shell implements to scrap away the layers of outer bark which consists of the rough brown bark, then a layer of dark green and pale green skin beneath. Once the white bast is reached, the depth of the skinning should go no deeper than this. Novices to kapa-making often times scrap away everything, leaving only the pale yellow stick inside. Because of the nature of wauke having long intact fibers, care should be taken when pulling fibers, lest you pull off entire strips of the bast. Also be careful cutting around scarred areas and places where branches have been cut off. Try to remove everything that is not the white inner bast. Sometimes the bast will react to being exposed to the air and may turn shades of light brown. Don't worry about it. Also don't worry about cuts, holes, flaws or major catastrophes that may or may not be beyond your control. These imperfections will be dealt with in later stages of processing. The important thing is to focus and do your best at each step of the way

When your stalk has been cleaned, take your 'niho māno' shark tooth knife and make a straight slit down the length of the tree. Start from the thicker end of the tree. You only need to cut through the bast but not through the inside stalk or 'pith'. Still, you will need some pressure and a steady hand. Also be aware that the shark tooth is sharp and it can cut you if you are not careful. Check that your cut is clean and all the way thru the bast. Then, using your fingernails or a shell, pull the two cut edges back from the slit and loosen from the pith. Do this all the way down the tree and then you'll be ready to remove the whole bast.

Taking out the bark off of the wauke tree The ultimate indication as to how well you watered your trees will occur during this stage of removing the bast from the pith. Two years of care or neglect will become apparent at this moment. Starting from the thicker end of the tree, loosen the bast and carefully pull it down the length of the stalk. Remember we are not trying to peel a banana and end up with five pieces…we just want one piece to come off the tree.

The two tools we will be using next are the round beater or 'hohoa' and the stone anvil or 'kua pōhaku'. Remember that stones must be asked before being gathered and wood tools must be carefully made. In ancient times, kapa tool making was an industry done by the men. Today kapa makers must find woodworkers or make and gather materials for their own tools. The purpose of this first beating stage is to loosen the fibers and prepare them to be soaked in water. Starting from the bigger end, firmly beat the bast with the grain to force the fibers apart. Beating does not mean beating the bark senseless…beating is coaxing. Beating kapa is not the time for releasing pent up issues, stress or hostility. It is a time to be patient and quiet and prepare to create something wonderful. Using a little water during the beating process wil help the bark spread but we aren't trying to make wide kapa yet. If we double the kapa from the original size that will be fine. After the beating, roll the kapa up and wrap it in ti leaves like a laulau. Put it in a covered jar or bucket or Ziploc bag of water. We will leave it like this for about two weeks to allow it to soften and ferment in preparation for the second beating.

The second beating is the time we will really begin to make the cloth. We will have two different tools. The wooden anvil called 'kua la'au' and the squared sides beater called the ' I'e kuku'. The word 'kua' in the names of the anvils refer to kua as a spine, or as something that supports us. In this case, our kapa kua supports our kapa for us as we work. Now that the kapa is very soft and mushy and probably pretty smelly, we need a different beating technique from the first beating. Our purpose now is to gradually compress the fibers together yet spread the cloth out to our desired width.

Three Kapa Beaters
Kapa BeatersDalani Tanahy Printing on Kapa

The I'e kuku has grooves of various widths on each side, from the 'pepehi' side which may be only four grooves, to the 'ho'opai' side which may have 20 to 25 grooves to the inch! Each of these sides has it's purpose in working the cloth. If a wider cloth is desired, more of the fermented trees can be laid one atop the other and beaten together. As the cloth is felted together, it widens and thins out. Hawaiian kapa is the only type you will see that can be as large as a king size blanket and yet have no seams where pieces were joined together to get such a size. The fermentation and felting process facilitate this, as well as the steady hand of the skilled kapa maker. One side of the I'e kuku will have a pattern known as the watermark. This is the side for the final beating, when this design will be the last one impressed permanently into the kapa. There were many designs of the watermark but the names and meanings of only a few are known today.

First Kapa beating First Kapa Beating

When the kapa is complete, it is laid out to dry and then prepared for painting. Dry kapa is stiff like cardboard and needs to be smoothed out and softened. This can be done using smooth stones to rub the kapa flat. When it came to dying kapa, the people of Hawaii loved to use color and intricate patterns. Dyes were made from many plants and their many parts including leaves, flowers, sap, roots and bark. These dyes could be painted on or the kapa immersed in the 'wai ho'olulu' or dark water. Patterns could be applied by hand or using the bamboo 'ohe kapala' stamp. Stamping this way is extremely time consuming and is a definite test of patience.

As if all that work wasn't enough, the Hawaiians also scented their kapa using various plants, flowers and oils. Some of these included the leaves of the maile, the flowers of the mokihana and hala, and the oils from the kamani and kukui trees. A beloved kapa moe or sleeping kapa could be rolled up for the day with sandlewood chips and maile leaves scattered inside. When the blanket was opened for the night and the chips shaken out, the lucky sleeper would have this wonderful scent to send her off to sleep.

Second Kapa BeatingSecond kapa beatingPlain Kapa

Today there are a handful or two of Hawaiian kapa makers who understand and practice this art. It is back breaking work that requires patience and humility. Plants must be grown, tools must be made and huge blocks of time set aside to slowly pound out and then decorate the cloth. It was a common, every day occurrence and commodity in ancient times that was nearly completely lost after the first European arrived in Hawaii.

It was and continues to be a labor of love for those who rediscovered and breathed new life into it and teach it to those who want to learn. Hawaiian kapa lives again as the cherished skill and product that it was to our ancestors.

E ola mau ke kapa o na kupuna