Kapa, known as tapa elsewhere in Polynesia, is an ancient Hawaiian art form. Traditional uses of kapa in Hawaiian culture included clothing, blankets, and ceremonial procedures. Currently there is a revival of kapa in Hawaiʻi and is often used for decorative purposes.
Kapa is made from the bast of the wauke plant. Wauke is a type of mulberry that was introduced when Polynesians first settled in Hawaiʻi. Kapa making includes several stages from growing the plants, preparing the bark, pounding the fibers, to coloring the pieces with natural dyes. Denby’s pieces are produced using the traditional Hawaiian methods. She completes all the stages of kapa making herself.
Hawaiian kapa differed from tapa in other areas of the Pacific. Hawaiians added in unique steps of fermentation, watermarking, and scenting their pieces. Historically, Hawaiian kapa has a much wider variety of colors. The Hawaiian Islands are larger, and specifically taller than other islands in the Pacific. The result is more ecosystems and a greater number of plants to collect dye.
Because kapa is constructed of organic fibers, it is susceptible to damage from insects, mold, acidic pollutants, extreme heat, light, and dust. Kapa has the ability to absorb and desorb moisture as the humidity goes up and down. For this reason, very low humidity is not good for kapa as it will cause the fibers to become brittle. Constant swings in humidity are harmful because, in time, break-down and weakening of the fibers will occur. Mold is a problem with kapa because it is visually disfiguring and will weaken the fibers. Therefore a piece should not be hung next to an area where it will receive lots of moisture, like near a bathroom shower. The natural dyes used can fade overtime. Pieces will have the least chance of discoloration if kept out of direct sunlight.
Some of this information was provided by the Bishop Museum Conservation department. To learn more see bishopmuseum.org/research/conservation.
Some of the dyes commonly used in Denby’s pieces:
Milo: Yellow is made from the seed pods of the Milo tree. Milo is typically found in low lying areas throughout Hawaiʻi.
ʻUkiʻuki: various shades of blue can be produced from the berries of this native plant.
ʻŌlena: Also known as turmeric provides a yellow to yellow-orange color from the root.
ʻAlaea: native clay that has high iron content creates shades of red, purple, and yellow.
Kukui hili: Brown dye is made from the inner bark of the kukui tree. The strength of the color depends on how it is prepared. This dye does not fade easily.
Paʻu: Kukui hili mixed with soot that is collected from burned kukui nuts produces a deep black. This dye does not fade easily.
Koa: An orange-brown comes from the inner bark of the native koa tree. It also does not fade as easily as other colors.
For additional information on Hawaiian kapa please visit kapahawaii.com.