Tapa cloth

Object of the Month: 05/2004

What is it?:

Tapa cloth

Where was it collected:

American Samoa by Admiral H.F. Bryan, Governor of American Samoa 1925-1927, donated to the SMM in 1934


~ 50" x 72"

Accession #: 34-2

Tapa cloth
Tapa cloth

Since prehistoric times, people of many cultures in tropical regions worldwide have made a unique type of cloth by pounding the inner bark, or bast, of suitable trees and shrubs into sheets of soft fabric. This bark cloth, or tapa (a Polynesian word) as it is commonly called has been used as clothing for kings and commoners, bedding, mosquito "netting", prized as a covering for representations of the gods, stockpiled as a measure of wealth and used as units of exchange. It could be made as thick as a wool blanket or as thin as a silk scarf.

Throughout Polynesia the best tapa was made from the paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera), although the bark of several species of breadfruit and fig trees were also used. In the basic process the bark is peeled off the mulberry stems in one piece, rolled inside out to prevent curling, after which the outer and inner barks are separated. At this point the moist bark may be beaten immediately, soaked in water for as long as a month, or dried and stored for future use.

Undecorated tapa and tapa beater As opposed to bark cloth made by shredding or cutting strips of bark that are woven or plaited together, the manufacture of tapa involves beating the soft, moist bark sections to expand them into wider, thinner sheets. This is done by laying a bast strip on a wooden anvil and pounding it with a hand held beater, commonly made of carved wood.

Decorating tapa cloth involves the use of various types of paints and dyes made from a wide range of natural materials including the spice turmeric, berries, leaves, sap, human blood, soot, and earthen pigments such as red ochre and various colored clays and mud. Designs are most often applied by free-hand painting or, as in the example above, by laying the cloth on a design board of carved wood or other types of patterned matrices and then rubbing the surface with a wad of tapa dipped into the dye.