Tapa – a labour of love

In Tonga, a woman’s wealth is shown by her tapa.

The tapa is a labour of love – a cloth intensively, painstakingly made by the woman of the village.

Every Wednesday we would hear a constant banging of wood on wood – Wednesday was tapa day.  The women of the villages would come together in, sit around talking, laughing and beating the bark of the mulberry tree.

The bark is removed from the mulberry tree, in strips of roughly a hand’s width.  The inner and the outer bark is separated and the inner bark (tutu or loututu) is left in the sun to dry.  It is then soaked and beaten against what could be described as a wooden anvil (tutua) with a wooden mallet (ike).  The beating of the bark thins the material and widens it, allowing it to become cloth-like in consistency.  These thinner sheets of bark are then added together and formed in to a larger sheet, with glue made from sweet potato (kumula).  The large, finished sheet is known as a fetaʻaki, and a finished tapa is typically three square metres, but those that are designed for important occasions can exceed 60 metres!

Painting of a tapa is an important part of the process – with traditional, local and tribal images adorning the material.  Stencils are made from coconut midribs, which are used to make a uniform pattern over the tapa.  As the tapa lays over a wooden drum, the women apply their artwork with traditional paint made from the Koka tree.  Once a section has been painted, they move on to the next section until the whole tapa is decorated.  It is then that it is spread on the ground and a paint brush which is made from Pandanus seeds is used to accentuate the marks left by the Koka paint.  This time they use paint made from the tongo, which is the mangrove tree.

Tapa is primarily a Polynesian craft, and is widely used, as traditional clothing, flooring, or to cover furniture.  Tapas are often created specifically for special occasions, and tapas are sometimes given as a donation to the local church.

During my family’s time in Tonga, we were gifted a beautiful tapa by a Tongan family we came to know very well.  Here’s my mum and little sis showing off our tapa the day they were gifted it.



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