Tapa: To Wear or Not to Wear?

Tapa cloth (or simply tapa) is a bark cloth made in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, primarily in Tonga and Samoa, but as far afield as Java, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Hawaii. In French Polynesia it has completely disappeared, except for some villages in the Marquesas.
Softening Bark for tapa.
The cloth is known by a number of local names, although the term tapa is international and understood throughout the islands that use the cloth. The word tapa is from Tahiti, where Captain Cook was the first European to pick it up and to introduce it to rest of the world. In Tonga, tapa is known as ngatu, and here it is of great social importance to the islanders, often being given as gifts. In Samoa, the same cloth is called siapo. In Hawai'i, it is known as kapa. In Rotuma it is called uha and in Fiji it is called masi.
Tapa making.
To make tapa, the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera) is scraped with shells and pounded with wooden mallets. Then the pieces are joined together with manioc juice. Once it is dry tapa can be decorated. Each island group has its characteristic colours and patterns, ranging from plant-like paintings to geometric designs.
Women making tapa.
In former times the cloth was primarily used for clothing, but now cotton and other textiles have replaced it. The major problem with tapa clothing is that the tissue is just like paper: it loses all its strength when it becomes wet and then it falls apart. Nowadays tapa is still often worn on formal occasions such as weddings. Another use of the tapa is as a blanket at night. It is also highly prized for its decorative value and is often found used to hang on the walls of homes and community buildings. In Tonga a family is considered poor, no matter how much money they have, if they do not have any tapa in stock at home to use as gifts at weddings, funerals and so forth. If the tapa was ever donated to them by a chief or the tribal royal family, it is much more valuable.
Finished tapa.
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