Thursday, 19 April 2012

Hawaiian Barkcloth

The Alexander Shaw Barkcloth book in the Pitt Rivers collection contains fifty-six samples.  Although each copy of the book is different, ours is very similar to the copy in the State Library of New South Wales, which has been digitised here.  The samples are clearly from the same original pieces of barkcloth, even the seventeen additions in the back of the book, although the State Library copy has additional samples.  There are also identical pieces of Hawaiian barkcloth in the copy of the volume held in Auckland Museum, photographed in 'Traditional Tapa Textiles of the Pacific' by Neich and Pendergrast, p93.

Many of the pieces of tapa in Shaw's book are from Hawaii.  Because of the early date of publication, these samples were almost certainly brought back from Cook's third voyage.

Hawaiian barkcloth reached a high level of sophistication, due in part to the climate of the islands, which was very suitable for the growth of the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) and the breadfruit (Artocarpus incisa), which were the sources of the bark. 

Barkcloth was given texture with patterned barkcloth beaters, or by using grooved boards to give a ridged texture.  These tapa were called kua'ula, and, unusually, were made by men.  The demand for it was great, and there was considerable production of this kind of barkcloth.

Sample 17 - ridged barkcloth, Hawaii

The fabric produced was often thick and cardboard-like, and had to be sewn together when making skirts or loincloths.  Bone or wooden needles were used, and the thread was made from bark fibre.

Sample 4 - sewn barkcloth, Hawaii

Dyes and pigments were obtained from a wide range of sources, mainly from plants but minerals such as red and yellow ochre were also used.  Tapa was often scented, with plants such as a fragrant fern (Polypodium phymatodes), sandalwood (Santalum spp.) and ginger.

Once dyed, decoration was applied to the surface of the tapa in many ways.  Many of the Shaw barkcloth samples are decorated with bold geometric designs, which were common in eighteenth century Hawaiian tapa.

Sample 2.  Freehand geometric decoration.  Hawaii

Some designs were applied freehand, but other samples are decorated with fine straight lines which were applied with a bamboo or wooden  'liner', shaped rather like a fork with several prongs, which was dipped in dye and drawn across the surface of the cloth, using a bamboo ruler to guide it.  These finer ruled designs became more popular in the nineteenth century.

Samples 23 and 24.  Hawaii.  Sample 24 is decorated with fine lines.
Sample 24 - detail of the surface.

The samples in the barkcloth book are in very good condition, and little conservation work is required.  Each page of the book will be photographed, and the digitised version made available on the new Pitt Rivers Cook-voyage collection website, which is one of the outcomes of this project.