Exploring Ideas – Project 1 – Interpreting Cultural Sources – Stage 1, Research Cont. Pacific Island Textiles

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Embroidery in the Pacific Islands

Embroidery is by no means a common art in the Pacific Islands region. Costume was little worn and was not traditionally embroidered ‘although in Tonga and some other islands men’s traditional outfits include helmets, masks for ceremonial occasions, skirts, arm and leg bands and shields decorated with stitched feathers’ (Gostelow, Mary: Embroidery, traditional designs, techniques and patterns from all over the world. Marshall Cavendish 1978).

In the Admiralty Islands, seeds and shells were attached to a cotton ground using long brown stitches and other islanders also used shells which were pierced and sewn onto bags, pouches and ceremonial items.

Decorative wall hangings and quilts are found in Hawaii but other than these few examples of embroidery are worked today in the region.


Hawaiian Bed covers & Quilts

Typified by large cotton motifs usually of one colour hemmed onto another plain coloured cotton ground, then padded and lined. Hawaiian quilts are typically quilted with running stitches in a trellis / wave pattern or contour quilted following the motif edges as a guide. Themes for the motifs varied but popular designs are: breadfruit, pineapples, lilies of the valley, prickly pears, garlands and fans.

The art of quilting was probably introduced to the Islanders by the Americans in the early 19th Century. ‘unlike their teachers, who had small pieces of leftover material with which to ‘piece’ quilts, Hawaiian women had no scraps ready to hand and had instead, to decorate their quilts with motifs cut from new lengths of fabric. Thus evolved the typical two – coloured quilt.’ (Gostelow, Mary: Embroidery 1978).

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Tapa (Bark cloth)

Tapa or Bark cloth is probably the most recognisable textile based art form of the islands. It is made in most of the islands of the pacific ocean mainly Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, but is also found the Cook Islands, Java, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Hawaii.

The word ‘Tapa’ is from Tahiti and the Cook Islands. (Captain Cook was reputedly the first European to collect it). bark cloth is known throughout the islands by many different names:

  • Tonga – ngatu
  • Samoa – siapo
  • Niue – haipo
  • Hawaii – kapa
  • Fiji – ‘uka / masi
  • Pitcairn Islands – ahu
  • Elsewhere – Tapia

‘Though there are a variety of local names, the word tapa, originally from Tahiti, is commonly used to refer to bark cloth made all over the world. The MNCH tapa cloth collection includes about 40 tapas primarily from Polynesia, including the islands of Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii, and Tahiti. While tapa cloth is most often recognized as a Polynesian craft, it has also been made in South America, Indonesia, New Guinea, Melanesia, and parts of Africa;’ (University of Oregon Museum: http://natural-history.uoregon.edu/collections/web-galleries/tapa-cloth)

Each Island has its own variation of Tapa production although most appear to be similar: Redsapphire explains it all very well in their excellent guide to tapa cloth on eBay:

  1. A straight sapling (maybe about a yard long) is cut.
  2. The worker peels back the bark, turning it inside out.
  3. A knife is used to separate the soft, pliable inner bark (the bast) from the outer bark (the outer bark is thrown away).
  4. The bast is laid on a board and, while being kept wet, scraped with a sea shell (or other tool).
    • The scraping cleans away remnants of the outer bark.
    • It also softens and spreads out the fibers.
    • The scraping produces a clean, white product.
  5. The cloth is then beaten with a beater (you may have seen one of these for sale on eBay).
    • Note that, in modern times, the scraping step is sometimes left out, and the cloth is beaten.
    • Un-scraped cloth isn’t as clean; but, for pieces produced mainly for the tourist trade, it doesn’t seem to matter that much.
  6. The beating continues (with several layers of cloth at a time) in a definite rhythm.
    • The beating starts with a wide-grooved face.
    • Near the end – when the cloth is the right thickness – the beater is turned over and the smooth face completes the job.
  7. The individual sheets are then separated, stretched out, and weighted down with stones to dry.

And that’s the cloth. Some cultures use it raw and unpainted. But, if that was the case with all barkcloth, you wouldn’t really know it was tapa.

After the bark becomes cloth, the specific design work begins. The design helps differentiate where the cloth was made, but they can vary even within the same culture. The design methods include:

  • Rubbing against a design template fashioned out of leaves or (more recently) carved into wood.
  • Rubbing against a template that contains colored dyes (some of which rub off onto the cloth).
  • Painting the cloth to follow the design after the rubbing.
  • Painting the cloth freehand (without following an indented rubbing).
  • Painting the cloth using stencils. Yes, stencils; I’m not kidding.

When dyes are used, they are made from natural elements. The colors vary from yellows to reds to blacks (with an occasional blue). http://www.ebay.co.uk/gds/Polynesian-Tapa-barkcloth-the-Cloth-of-Island-Kings-/10000000001650920/g.html

In the UK examples are rare; the British museum has a small collection as does the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, The Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford has some as part of their collection. The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge had a recent exhibition of bark cloth, sadly it finished in April, long before I started this assignment.

‘The Economic Botany Collections at Kew have examples from a wide geographical range, including Pitcairn, Hawaii, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Futuna, Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Sulawesi, Halamahera, Seram, New Guinea, and Java. The samples cover the many diverse uses, designs and styles of bark cloth, and are the result of a number of private collectors and colonial expeditions in the 19th century, from HRH the Duke of Edinburgh to the mutineers of the HMS Bounty. Most of the examples at Kew date from the late 19th century. The production of bark cloth slowed considerably in the 20th century, eventually dying out in all but a few islands as missionaries from the west visited the Pacific, bringing with them western ideas and goods such as cotton textiles. In fact, it became a sign of a convert to wear cotton, rather than bark cloth.’ (http://www.kew.org/collections/ecbot/collections/topic/bark-cloth/index.html).

My next step is to finish reading the books I am currently studying on the subject and to look at some photos of tapa cloth and to recreate some of the designs in my sketchbook. There are some particularly good source photos in ‘Traditional Tapa, Textiles of the pacific’ by R. Neich and M. Pendergrast. ISBN: 0-500-279896.

I would also like to see if I can visit one of the collections in the UK to see if I can get a look at some examples close up.



Traditional Tapa,Textiles of the pacific by R. Neich and M. Pendergrast. ISBN: 0-500-279896

Polynesian Art, Edward Dodd (Hale 1967) SBN: 7091 0853 2

Primal arts, Berenice Geoffroy – Schneiter (Thames & Hudson 2000) ISBN: 0-500-28258-7

Embroidery, traditional designs, techniques and patterns from all over the world. Mary Gostelow (Marshall Cavendish 1978)


University of Oregon Museum: http://natural-history.uoregon.edu/collections/web-galleries/tapa-cloth

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tapa_cloth

Redsapphire’s Polynesian Tapa (barkcloth) – the cloth of Island kings guide: http://www.ebay.co.uk/gds/Polynesian-Tapa-barkcloth-the-Cloth-of-Island-Kings-/10000000001650920/g.html

Kew Gardens: http://www.kew.org/collections/ecbot/collections/topic/bark-cloth/

The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge: maa.cam.ac.uk/maa/tapa-barkcloth-paintings-from-the-pacific

The Pitt Rivers Museum: http://www.pitt-rivers-museum.ox.ac.uk/

The British Museum: www.britishmuseum.org






About Julie Hooker

Having recently returned to my roots in Surrey, I am currently studying a BA Hons degree with the OCA. My work is often inspired by the local countryside in the beautiful Surrey Hills area and the wild rugged nature of the North Cornish coast. Steam engines and abandoned industrial history are also recent themes. A free machine embroiderer and felt maker; I like to explore the use of natural, found materials to create my art, whether that be as raw materials to stitch or weave with or as a material with which to produce dye or print with. Previously, I completed City and Guilds parts 1 & 2 Creative Embroidery at the East Berkshire College in Windsor in 2007. I was also awarded first place in the wearable art section of the National Quilt Championships 2008 and 2009 held annually at Sandown Park.
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