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FINAL PROJECT: Conservation of Tongan Ngatu

This project was 3-fold, involving the research and manufacture of polynesian barkcloth, conservation of an existing Tongan Ngatu, and a creative project -printing the Hawaiian legend of Hina of Hilo, the great kapa maker.

“Hina, the mother of the demi-god Maui, was the great kapa-maker of the legends of the ancient Hawaiians. It is said that she still spreads her kapas in the sky. They are the beautiful clouds of all colors, sometimes piled up and sometimes lying in sheets. When fierce winds blow and lift and toss the cloud kapas and roll off the stones which Hina has placed on them to hold them down, or when she throws off the stones herself, the noise of the rolling stones is the thunder which men hear. When Hina folds the cloud sheets together, the folds glisten and flash in the light of the sun, thus what men call lightening is the sunlight leaping from sheet to sheet of Hina’s kapas in cloudland.”  -(William Drake Westervelt, Hawaiian Legends of Old Honolulu )

The word “tapa” has become the blanket (tourist) term used to refer to the barkcloth produced throughout the Pacific Islands, Eastern Asia, Africa, and the Americas. When passenger ships came ashore to port towns requesting “tapas” to take as souvenirs, the local inhabitants became familiar with the tourist terminology.[1] Among themselves, the natives retained the use of their own language – far less generalized and specific to the type and use of the cloth produced. Traveling in 1769 with Captain Cook, Joseph Banks wrote, “of this thin cloth they have as many different sorts almost as we have of linen; distinguishing it into different fineness and the different materials of which it is made.”[2]  Called siapo by the Samoans and Futunans, ngatu by the Tongans and Uveans, ahu by the Tahitians, masi by the Fijians and kapa by the Hawaiians, the craft is widespread and holds deep cultural, religious and ritual history throughout the islands of the Pacific. [4]

In the late 18th century, its the long history was displaced by imported European goods. With few exceptions, current manufacture is produced, in lesser quality, for the tourist market. The indigenous technologies that were once used have been altered with time, and over generations have been lost to unrecorded history and memory. Because nothing of equal quality is being produced today, conservation efforts to identify the material and technological influences responsible for the current condition are necessary in order to determine appropriate treatments. The study and preservation of pre-European contact barkcloth and those produced outside the tourist market offer  a wealth of cultural, historical, technological, sociological and artistic information to further research and study of the Pacific Islands.

The remainder of this research available upon request

[1] Mary J. Pritchard, Siapo: Bark Cloth Art of Samoa (American Samoa: Council on Culture, Arts and Humanities Special Publication Number 1, 1984), 1.

[2] Ann Leonard and John Terrell, Patterns of Paradise: The Styles and Significance of Bark Cloth Around the World (Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1980), 22.

[3] Simon Kooijman, Tapa in Polynesia (Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1972), 3-4.

[4] Simon Kooijman, Tapa in Polynesia, Table A.


PART I: Manufacture

It can not go without mention that this project would not have been possible without the encouragement and rather generous donation of kozo from Tim Barrett at the University of Iowa Center for the Book Paper Production and Research Facility.

Kozo Harvest at the Paper production and Reseach Facility, Oakdale Campus

Traditionally, the growing cycle of the Paper  mulberry, the main fiber source for producing barkcloth throughout the Pacific, began in the rainy months, ensuring a promising growing season.[1] Attentive maintenance of weeds during early growth and monitoring of branches is necessary for a favorable harvest. Growth begins with shoots of leaves. As the stalks grow, the leaves remain at the top, creating shade and keeping weeds at a minimum.[2] An ideal strip of inner bark will come from a branch that has grown straight,[3] and contains no holes or scars from branches. For this reason, attention is given to removing the buds of branches before they develop. The first harvest is cut from the main shoots.  Additional harvests, though smaller than the first are taken from the remaining shoots.  After a few harvests, the plant is replanted in a new area. [4]

Age, size and characteristics of the bark and leaves have been used as indicators of appropriate harvest times. The first harvest is ready at 10-14 months, the diameter of the stalk being comparable to the “size of a man’s thumb.”[5] More specifically, at 2 years and 2-3 meters, the bark is said to be ready for harvest.[6] If cut too late, the bast will be coarse, stiff and difficult to remove from the branch; when harvested to early, the bast is insubstantial for use.[7] The Tongans use the visual clue of the outer bark’s smooth texture and silvery color.[8]

Specific techniques varied by location throughout the islands. The general practice was to harvest the fiber (most commonly, the paper mulberry, but also from the Ficus and Artocarpus), separate the outer bark from the inner bark which was then rolled in reverse coils to flatten, cleaned and then beaten on a wooden anvil.

Stripping the bark fresh, had its challenges. In practice it did not follow with the ease I saw in pictures; the Polynesian women  biting the  end of branch with their  teeth and stripping the bark  by holding the branch between their toes (I tried it, and I believe this to be an acquired skill). It was suggested that deviate from the traditional methods to ease this process; I first steamed the bark, and then remove it from the branch.

Steaming, Stripping and Flattening the Bark

When stripped fresh, the outer bark was removed by making a horizontal cut at the base of the strip, and then removing the outer bark, separating it from the inner bark. After steaming, the outer bark was moist and had begun to flake off. The separation of the inner and outer bark became combined with the cleaning process. I chose to follow the Samoan method of cleaning the bark because I had the most detailed account of its process. 3 Shells were used to clean the remnants of outer bark and muscilageneous substances:

  • Clam shell (Arca): removes the outer bark
  • Pae shell: rough outer surface –softens and widens fibers
  • Pipi (Asaphis): sharp edge-cleans up remaining blemishes

As a child, I often heard of my parent’2 2.5 year honeymoon on Guam, one of the first assignments of my Dad’s military career. While there, they had collected a boxful of beautiful seashells. Wanting to be as authentic as possible,  I wrote to my father asking him to send me one of each of the shells mentioned above.  He sent them right away, however, I am sure that these shells were from the salty  Atlantic rather than the beautiful coasts of Guam.

Clam shell, Pae  shell, and Pipi shell

Scraping the outerbark

“The Polynesian godess Hina, the tapa maker, was banished to the moon by the god Tangaroa because he was annoyed by the incessant noise of her anvil, which disturbed his Kava drinking” –  Ann Leonard and John Terrell, Patterns of Paradise

For the Beater,  I was given the name of an excellent woodworker; however, he did not return my calls. So, I gathered the first of my materials; a rectangular prism of Brazilian Cherry wood and an old pocket knife and shaped the bark beater myself.  I’m sure the earlier islanders did not run to their band saws when they needed to make a bark beater, (they probably didn’t use metal pocketknife blades either, but bamboo is scarce in Iowa City.) After a full day plus, I had widdled down the Brazilian Cherry into a workable beating tool and used a triangular file and some ancient (my grandfather’s) wood carving tools to create the longitudinal grooves. I was trying for a beater like those used on Tonga and Samoa; quadrangular and flared out at the end. I ended up with a more Tahitian looking beater. It looks like this:


The  cleaned strip of bark was laid on an anvil and beaten until it became a soft thin piece of cloth. The anvil was often hollowed for resilience and musical resonance. I chose to used the same board that I had used to clean the bark. (I probably also disturbed the neighbor’s “Kava drinking.” Fortunately, I was not banished).

Beating: Various beating methods were found throughout the islands including: folding and beating in bundles, beating in strips individually, and felting. Shown above is the gradual widening of the width.

The decoration found among tapa is distinct by location. Designs are applied freehand, using stencils, stained with local dyes, smoked, and/ or printed. For this project, I was specifically interested in technology used in printing from vegetable fibered printing mats and wooded  blocks. Reference to the use of these methods seems only to apply to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa (called upeti in Samoa, kupeti in Tonga and Kupesi in Fiji). Before the introduction of metal tools, these printing tablets were constructed of pandanus leaves, sennit, coconut midribs and bamboo.

My leaf and wooden upeti are shown below.

[1] Kooijman, Tapa in Polynesia, 299.

[2] Pritchard, Siapo, 23.

[3] Neich and Pendergrast, Traditional Tapa Textiles of the Pacific, 13.

[4] Pritchard, Siapo, 22-23.

[5] Kooijman, Tapa in Polynesia, 213.

[6] Pascal Cusenier, Tapa: Bark Cloth of Oceania, 6.

[7] Leonard and Terrell, Patterns of Paradise, 13.

[8] Kooijman, Tapa in Polynesia, 299.


Part II: Conservation of Tongan Tapa

After treatment


10 years ago the UICB Research and Production Paper Facility received a donation of Tongan tapa cloth from Merle Anders, a Peace Corps volunteer from Iowa Falls. After treatment, the item was donated to UIowa’s Special Collections.

The method used in Tonga for creating large pieces of tapa involves the lamination of many smaller pieces of beaten bark strips. Constructed in this manner, the full dimension at the time of manufacture measures 71” x 156.”  The condition of the tapa when taken from the Oakdale Facility (shown above) in the Fall 2011 was folded at the midpoint resulting in a dimension of 71” x 78.”  It appeared to be adhered this way. When I mentioned this to Head Conservator at the Field Museum, Ruth Norton, she gave me a puzzled look and explained that folding a completed tapa in this manner is not a typical Tongan practice. After inspecting this fold more closely,  it was evident that the adherence existed only along the line of discoloration due to  mold and water damage. The fold was easily removed and the tapa restored to its original dimension.

Complete research and treatment report available upon request

Tongan Tapa: Abridged Description and Overview of Treatment Proposal

Width: 71”

Length: 156”

Current  Storage: folded and rolled  into a cardboard box (non archival)

The very first thing I did was take the tapa out of this box:

Objective 1: To provide the least invasive treatments necessary for preservation of the item. These include: dry cleaning, humidification, flattening, minor tissue mending and construction of archival storage.

Present Condition: The current condition of the Tongan tapa exhibits discoloration due to fading and mold, as well as tears, losses, insect damage, delaminations, wrinkles, folds, and creases. It is my goal to attend to the s, folds, major tears and storage. The current deterioration is not so great to require more invasive treatments. There are inherent characteristics of tapa that are not necessary to tend to as they would compromise the integrity of the item’s history. The presence of wrinkles and delaminations are examples of these. The tapa was not meant to be perfectly smooth and therefore should not be forced. The aim of the present treatment is not to restore, but to preserve the item in its current condition and prevent further deterioration.

Tears & delamination


Loss & Insect Damage


I. Cleaning: Methods from existing research include using a combination of vacuuming through a screen, a soft brush and sponge cleaning; the method of cleaning chosen depending on the condition of the tapa. When using a brush, a vacuum should be used in conjunction, vacuuming up the dirt as it is loosened with the brush otherwise the loosened surface dirt is only spread across the item and further ingrained.[1]

  • I used a HEPA Filter H13 to clean both sides of the tapa.

II. Humidification and Flattening: The tapa is not so brittle that it cannot be unfolded. It does however have some stiff and brittle areas that need more careful handling. Two possible methods of humidification and flattening are to 1) create a humidity tent or 2) use localized humidification. Creating a humidity tent would involve creating a “gortex sandwhich”: plastic, gortex, tapa, gortex, plastic. Due to the size of the tapa, a localized humidification and flattening may be more feasible. Working in sections, the portion not being immediately treated will remain rolled. These treatments will remove the wrinkles, creases and folds that have resulted from present storage. I anticipate that this process will be the most time consuming portion of treatment. Because humidification introduces moisture to the object, the dyes must be tested in discrete areas to ensure that they are not fugitive. Consideration must also be given to the presence of mold in regard to the effects humidification treatment may have on its growth and spread.

  • Ultimately, I decided to use a modified humidity-tent method. Working in the space available (my workbench) I humidified with gortex in sections, though this was not ideal.  The tapa was humidified in this manner for approximately 30 minutes. This was enough time to introduce enough moisture to relax the tapa. The gortex and plastic were removed and the section humidified, placed under weight, overnight. The portion not being humidified remained rolled. The portion humidified and flattened was rolled onto a hollow tube, covered in acid free paper.


Shown above: before and after humidification and flattening

Humidification in progress

III. Storage:

Once humidified and flattened rolled storage is the most realistic option. A roll of archival tubing (cardboard tube covered with Mohawk) will provide the support for the tapa, an interleaving of acid-free tissue or mylar will prevent the tapa from being rolled onto itself, preventing the potential for existing mold to contaminate other parts of the tapa.  An additional cover  of mylar and/or poly-bagging will protect the rolled item from dust.

[1] Noted by Ruth Norton, Head Conservator, The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, IL.


PART III: Hina of Hilo – Printed and Bound, pictures are in the works.


5 comments on “FINAL PROJECT: Conservation of Tongan Ngatu

  1. atxinventor
    November 11, 2018

    Hi! You still here? 1) I sold the bear skin before catching said plantigrade, meaning, I am due to present on Tapa in 2019, and I have never made any… 2) my very very first attempt was today, cutting a small branch from my fig tree. So far, no good 🙂 3) Visiting in UICB in ’17 was the highlight of my year 4) so far your page is the only source I have found discussing how tapa is made (just started looking yesterday), except for Dard Hunter’s Papermaking, which I’ll find again and re-read. 5) guess i’ll have to try mulberry…
    Thank you!

    • juneberry
      November 11, 2018

      Hi! Yes, i’m still here. Thank you for checking out my blog. How exciting to be presenting on Barkcloth! Where will you be presenting?

      I remember my attempts at making were not as successful as i had hoped either. I ended up with just one piece that was the width, thickness and texture that felt like one authentic piece i had encountered. I was using paper mulberry.

      I recently got to revisit barkcloth and wrote about it in a 2 part blog here:

      Dard Hunter’s book is a good resource about the actual manufacture. You could also try to find Simon Kooijman’s Tapa in Polynesia. If i remember correctly, he discusses manufacture practices on each of the islands. It is very thorough.

      Do you know about the barkcloth Symposium that is happening this December in England? This is a link has some information about it:

      Good Luck with making the cloth and presenting. Please don’t hesitate to reach out again. I am happy to help is i can.

      All best,

  2. Yama Ploskonka
    September 8, 2019

    Hi Jill,

    life has these funny turns. So I did include tree-bark cloth in my grant proposal, got approved, and eventually delivered. Strictu-sensu not “tapa”, but rather the Amazonian variety. Main difference I guess it’s the males that do it, besides being other ficus rather than mulberry, but also mulberry, depending which First Nation, etc.
    For last prep purpose I had gone to the internet, was glad to find your page again, might have looked it over, but until today, when I finally was cleaning up tabs from my browser, I decided to print your article. Reading my printout, I see that you kindly had answered. Well, I come to wordpress but seldom, so I didn’t notice, sorry.

    so here was the invite:
    and a tiny video that I took. I should have done more documenting, but was too busy having fun!
    It was so pleasant to have multiple beaters going cloppy cloppy cloppy.

    would be nice to keep in touch, not sure why specifically, but people silly enough to discuss bark-cloth in this day and age should. BTW, one of these days I should go work a bit the Wikipedia article, it doesn’t mention the Amazonian bark-cloth at all. I might try to ask the Glasgow people if they actually did set up that platform for people to discuss barkcloth. My bark cloth makers got so excited! each ended up with a most original bookmark.

  3. Yama Ploskonka
    September 8, 2019

    forgot to add my video, and the main video I showed during the presentation, Sapara nation

    • juneberry
      September 11, 2019

      Hi Yama,
      Congratulations on your grant. It look like you learned and figured out quite a bit about the process of making the cloth on your own! Thank you for sharing the links to your video and the video from your presentation. I didn’t know about Sapara; I am excited to learn about it and will be watching the video momentarily.
      Yes, please keep in touch. I agree. those of us that are excited about beating out the barks of trees to make cloth are very much a rare breed and should keep in touch.

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