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Book Arts in Tonga, part 1: Making tapa cloth and koka dye

February 4, 2011

Last summer I mentioned that I was invited to go to Vava’u, Tonga as a guest instructor and to participate in an artists’ book collaboration between the BYU Art Department and local Tongan craftspeople. I promised to report back. I didn’t forget… I’m just a slow-poke.

The point of the trip was to immerse American students into Tongan culture by staying with Tongan families and working side-by-side with Tongan craftspeople and artists (I think that perhaps all Tongans are craftspeople and artists–it seemed to me that all Tongans know how to make tapa cloth) to make Tapa Cloth, native dyes, and learn a bit about traditional Tongan design. Each participant would then create an artist’s book using the cloth and dyes we had made the previous week. But let’s just get to the photos, eh?

Day one started out by sorting suitable (bark? leaves?) for weaving a long snake-skin-like strainer for the bark/ink.


Long thing strips of mulberry bark (the inner soft bark, not the outer bark) were soaked overnight, and then we were shown how to beat the mulberry with heavy wooden mallets. The bark is beaten, then folded, beaten some more, then folded again, and so on. When the bark is sufficiently wide, the whole thing is unfolded and the creases hammered out of the tapa. I took a short video of the beating process so that you can properly appreciate what our ears (and arms!) put up with for two days:

Notice how skinny Gary’s bark was in the photo above, and how it’s now been beaten nice and wide… It takes a lot of beating to get each one to that point.

Once it’s made, it’s hung to dry. I made this one (I was pleased with myself to complete one, but the Tongan women put us Americans to shame–some of our hosts made at least a dozen each).

Meanwhile, we were shown how to scrape bark from a koka tree to extract the dye. This tree will recover, but I was told that a koka tree’s bark can only be taken once during the tree’s life (or maybe it was once every several years. I don’t remember for certain).

As you can see, the koka tree bleeds red.

Progress on the weaving of the strainer for the dye (sorry I don’t know the Tongan word for this!).

Mixing the bark with water to help extract the dye.

Getting the bark ready for straining.

The weaving is wrapped around the bark and tied up tightly.

Then it’s hung by the two ends,

A beam is placed through the loop, and the dye is strained as the beam is twisted with a downward pressure. Here’s a video taken by my friend of the extraction:

The ink is a reddish brown if used raw, and it some of it is also cooked to make a rich dark brown color.

There you have it, the making of tapa cloth and koka dye. Next we learned a bit of design, a bit of bookbinding, and then set out to create our books. But I’ll save that for another blog post (hopefully soon), since this took a while to write!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff Peachey permalink
    February 4, 2011 1:59 pm

    Well done! It is very important to document craft techniques like these.

  2. February 4, 2011 2:56 pm

    Wait, tapa cloth is actual mulberry bark? I’d heard of “barkcloth” but hadn’t realized that. SO very cool! Thanks for documenting this.

    Did you get to take your piece home with you? Have I seen it? Eagerly awaiting the followup posts.

  3. Jen permalink
    February 7, 2011 11:11 am

    What a fun post! I remember admiring a beautiful tapa wall hanging at a lady’s house on my mission.

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