Do you want to build or decorate a home tiki bar and make it authentically spectacular? Then you must start hunting for some tapa cloth — a tiki bar design essential. Pam and I had no idea how wonderful tapa cloth was before we attended The Hukilau and were able to see and touch a real live vintage piece from new BFF Basement Kahuna aka Dave Wolf’e’s collection. This stuff is awesome!
All of the tiki experts on our panel agreed that tapa cloth is an important building block of a home tiki bar. Applying tapa cloth to a wall will instantly ‘fill’ the space with authentic Polynesian pattern and texture.
Tapa cloth can be used on its own as a design element on its own merit. Or, it can be used as a backdrop for a Polynesian mask, sword, tiki or other object. Above: A tiki carving framed beautifully by a tapa cloth at Foundation tiki bar in Milwaukee.
Tapa cloth was a must-have element in commercial tiki bars, which entered the American scene in the 1930s and endured through the early 1980s. Above: The Lanai Room at Trader Vics at the Boston Statler Hilton, vintage postcard from Pam’s collection.
What is tapa cloth and how is it made?
Tapa cloth has long been made, by hand, using the inner bark of the paper-mulberry tree. It is then hand-decorated using inks also derived by natural materials.
The long process of creating tapa cloth begins with stripping, soaking and pounding the inner bark to flatten it… then connecting several thin sheets together… beating it again and joining it with other pieces… and finally, finally decorating the cloth with natural pigments. The end result is a work of art — a decorative, textured, thin cloth with a bit of sheen that feels sort of like painted rice paper, only thicker.
Scroll down to see a detailed description of tapa cloth making found on some old packaging…
Traditionally, tapa cloth is was made for everyday uses such as clothing, room dividers and floor mats, and it was also used for special occasions like wedding and funerals. Tapa cloth is still being made today — using both modern methods and the traditional, hand made method.
Where to buy tapa cloth
But now that you know about tapa cloth, you’ll also want to keep your eagle eye out for vintage. Vintage tapa cloth is highly collectable, and if you are lucky, you can find it at estate sales, thrift stores, and of course, on Ebay. While new tapa cloth made using traditional techniques can be just as beautiful as vintage pieces, vintage tapa cloth might also come with stories about the original owners that are almost as fun to collect as the cloth itself.
Basement Kahuna’s vintage roll of tapa cloth had a good story attached to it. A Polynesian woman gave the cloth — which she used for clothing — to an American serviceman when he was stationed there in the 1950s. As we recall, there was the the pitter patter of beating hearts, but a longterm romance was not to be. Back in the U.S. the cloth was kept in a closet for many years, because the woman who married the serviceman didn’t want to have a daily reminder of the Polynesian woman he left behind. That’s me holding Basement Kahuna’s storied vintage tapa cloth at Retro Renovation’s Hukilua symposium.
Pam found several gorgeous vintage pieces of tapa cloth in their original bags for sale by Ebay seller almostlono. Pieces of tapa cloth like these were often purchased as souvenirs by travelers in the 1960s and 1970s who wanted to bring a little bit of island art to their suburban homes.
Tapa… A Traditional Polynesian Cloth
They turn tree bark into beautiful cloth…
A flair for art, nimble fingers and endless patterns. For centuries now, these innate qualities have been the basis of the South Sea’s most indigenous handicraft — tapa making.
The making of tapa is win intricate process. Once the chief form of cloth over a large part of the South Pacific, notably in Polynesia, tapa is now no longer made in several islands where it was a universal art. In others, though, tapa of outstanding quality in texture and design is still made, and by no means only for sale purposed. In many island groups it is still the unusual form of sheet or quilt and it is still used on such occasions as a wedding, ceremonial dances and other ceremonial events. Tapa is made from the inner bark of the paper-mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera). This tree is cultivated for tapa making and introduced to grow straight and slender. When 6 to 8 feet tall, it is cut off at the base.
A small incision is made and the bark is peeled off as a glove is peeled off a finger. The bark is then rolled up, to prevent curling, soaked until softened and then scraped with a blunt-edged shell to remove any remaining pieces of the outer bark. The strips of inner bark are then beaten with a flat-faced wooden club against a hollow and resonant length of hardwood. The resonance of the “anvil” is mentioned because tapa makers usually work in teams of several women, all beating their tapa on the same resonant board in a slightly “off-beat” rhythm. The beat of the tapa makers and the work songs they sing is still a fascinating sound heard today in scores if not hundreds of villages.
The first beating expands the material some 6 to 8 times its former width and reduces it to tissue-paper thickness. Sheets of this delicate material are carefully folded, wetted, unfolded and placed on over the other. The double or triple thickness is then beaten again to “felt” it and make it one sheet. In a similar way, these sheets are joined to other sheets to make a large piece of tapa.
The decoration or painting of the tapa is, of course, the most difficult part of the whole process and the method and style varies from island to island. Only natural pigments are used and designs are traditional to each tapa maker and family of each island. Out of a thousand various-sized panels, it would be unlikely to find a duplication in design. Unique artistry is a prime reason why sophisticated markets are becoming especially partial to Tongan and Fijian Tapa.
Take a piece home and you will revel in the sunny glow that makes high quality tapa cloth the up-and-coming art form of today.
Tapa cloth has also been referred to as ‘barkcloth’ because it is made from tree bark. We will take an easy leap and suggest — the cotton barkcloth fabric — vintage and new — that we very much know and love today took its name from the idea of tapa cloth… the nubbly feel of cotton barkcloth is kind of similar to that of tapa cloth.
Mega thanks to Ebay seller almost_lono for allowing us to show his tapa cloth photos (listing now gone). The photo of me holding the vintage tapa cloth at The Hukilau courtesy of photographer Nicole Carta from go11.com.