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Tapa Cloth: A Pacific Treasure



What is Tapa Cloth?

Tapa cloth, or simply ‘tapa’, is a bark cloth made in the islands of the Pacific Ocean. The term ‘tapa’ is international and understood throughout the islands that use the cloth. However, it’s known by different names on different islands: in Tonga, it’s called ‘ngatu’; in Samoa, ‘siapo’ in Niue, ‘hiapo’, in Fiji, ‘masi’.


How is Tapa Cloth made?

The process of making tapa cloth is labour-intensive, involving several steps.


Harvesting The process begins with the harvesting of the inner bark of trees such as the paper mulberry or breadfruit1. The young shoots of the paper mulberry tree are cut down.

Separating The bark is then separated from the trunk. The outer bark is peeled from the soft, inner bark until the inner bark (or ‘tu tu’ as it’s called in Tonga) is in one long piece.

Soaking The strips of ‘tu tu’ are soaked in a bucket of water to soften the particles. This can take anywhere from overnight to a few days.

Beating The softened strip of ‘tu tu’ is placed vertically on a long, wooden anvil-like bench. It’s then beaten with a wooden mallet until it’s paper-thin and has expanded in width.

Joining the strips Two strips of thinned ‘tu tu’ are joined together by aligning them side-by-side and pounding the fibers with the mallet so that the strips join together to form a long, wide sheet.

Drying the cloth Once beaten and glued, the cloth is then dried in the sun.


Types of Tapa Cloth across the Pacific Islands

Tapa cloth varies greatly across the Pacific Islands, each with its unique characteristics:


Tonga (Ngatu) In Tonga, tapa cloth is of great social importance and often given as gifts. The patterns usually form a grid of squares, each containing geometric patterns with repeated motifs.

Samoa (Siapo) Samoan tapa, or siapo, also features geometric patterns, similar to those found in Tongan tapa.

Fiji (Masi) Fijian tapa, or masi, can be decorated by rubbing, stamping, stencilling, smoking (known as ‘masi kuvui’), or dyeing. The patterns usually form a grid of squares, each containing geometric patterns. Tapa cloth is a testament to the rich cultural heritage of the Pacific Islands. Each piece of tapa cloth tells a story of tradition, craftsmanship, and cultural pride.


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