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  • Kapa Pounding with Micah Kamohoali‘i: Preserving the Art of Hawaiian Bark Cloth

    Two men dress a headless mannequin with a yellow dyed skirt in front of a stage.

    Stallone Chartrand and Micah Kamohoali‘i dress a mannequin in kapa cloth for their demonstration at the Folklife Festival.

    Photo by Phillip R. Lee, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    “When I die, bury me by the stream and from this, plants will grow and you will make cloth out of it.”

    Kumu Micah Kamohoali‘i, a Native Hawaiian hula teacher, textile artist, and fashion designer, began his demonstration at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival with the origin story of the ancient practice of kapa (bark cloth) pounding. According to the story, there once lived a man in Hawai‘i who was very hairy and consequently always warm. His daughters, however, got cold when it was windy and would often get sick, so their father prayed to his ancestors to help him create something to keep his daughters warm and healthy. Before he died, he told his daughters to bury him by the stream, which will provide plants to make cloth from. So, the plant wauke was created.

    “Eventually, the daughters figured out how to make this,” Kamohoali‘i exclaimed, holding up a soft thin piece of fabric. For as long as anyone can remember, Native Hawaiians have used the bark of the mulberry tree to make kapa cloth and Kamohoali‘i is committed to keeping this practice alive in the twenty-first century.

    Joining him on the Rinzler Stage were Patricia Hodson, Laenette Hudgins, Jerneen Kauahi, and Naulieiilima Murphy, all wearing brilliant yellow dresses. Each woman set up a station with tools and materials, including a wooden anvil and beater. The stage was set with two mannequins, both clothed with the final products of the kapa beating: orange and yellow skirts decorated with beautiful patterns. Beginning the demonstration, the four women took the raw bark, set it on the anvil and began beating it repeatedly.

    [Watch the kapa pounding demonstration on YouTube]

    Two women in matching yellow strapless dresses sit on the ground, working with wooden tools.
    Laenette Hudgins (center) demonstrates pounding kapa.
    Photo by Phillip R. Lee, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Close-up on a woman as the use a wooden beater stick against a wooden anvil to pound a strip of tan bark.
    Photo by Phillip R. Lee, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    “This process can take days, weeks, or months depending on the size of the fabric that the designer wants,” Kamohoali‘i told us. After a few minutes of beating, the audience could see the change in the bark, which began to thin and spread.

    Just as the audience grew comfortable, perhaps even dozing off to the comforting rhythm of the kapa pounding, all four women began to beat the material faster and faster. There was suddenly a sense of urgency in the air. Kamohoali‘i explained that the pounding is not just for clothes: because it was such a common practice across Hawai‘i Island, the anvil became a way to alert people far away of important news. If the king was coming, women would know to pound the beaters in a certain rhythm so preparations could begin. If war was brewing, the women used another rhythm.

    “We actually tried this out in our town,” Kamohoali‘i told us. “There were about fifty of us pounding, and the range was about two miles.” I saw many eyes in the audience widen.

    After several rounds of beating, the makers had transformed the wauke into a soft cotton-like fabric.

    “This is the part where you say ‘wooooow’!” Kamohoali‘i exclaimed, holding up the final cloth product.

    A young woman holds up a piece of light tan cloth.
    Jerneen Kuauhi shows off a piece of kapa cloth.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Close-up on a piece of fabric dyed yellow-orange with geometric patterns in black and brown..
    Photo by Phillip R. Lee, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    The makers were now ready to decorate and paint the fabric.

    Kamohoali‘i held up a piece of fabric with intricate rows of marks: “This is my family’s design. This is a pattern of shark teeth because my family comes from the shark people.”

    In early Hawai‘i, the carved patterns and the colors of the fabric were highly significant and politicized attributes; each family or clan wore a different watermark and color, so they were easily recognized by other people. “Today, clothing is very different. You go to Marshalls and you just buy what tickles your fancy. In old Hawai‘i, you didn’t have a choice. If you didn't want to wear purple, you had to marry into the red clan,” Kamohoali‘i explained with a smile.

    Makers mixed natural materials to make the dyes, often from berries and barks. While colors were signifiers of family status, the painted patterns on the skirts were symbolic of different elements of nature. For one of the mannequin’s skirts, each pattern represented a different type of rainfall in Hawai‘i.

    “Clothing is not just clothing anymore,” Kamohoali‘i told the crowd. “It’s transcripts, sacred texts. It becomes the storybook. It becomes the history book that’s in the library. We just happen to wear them. Who would have thought that little skirt we wore says all that?”

    Close-up on a yellow dyed skirt, secured with pink cloth belt, on a mannequin.
    Photo by Phillip R. Lee, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Three women in matching yellow dresses.
    Arleen Wright Kuauhi and Patricia Kainoa Hodson look on during the demonstration.
    Photo by Phillip R. Lee, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Camera: Charlie Weber
    Editing: Sonia Harnish

    Kamohoali‘i learned the kapa-pounding process from the generations before him; his grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents have all taken part in the art of bark cloth and he does his part to continue this family tradition. He’s passionate about the process. “By showing an appreciation for our long history of fabric making, we’re keeping the tradition alive for today’s generations,” he said. “It’s the foundation of who we are.”

    As a fashion designer, Kamohoali‘i melds these traditional fabric and pattern making processes with principles of modern design. His clothing line consists of old designs on modern textiles or fabrics. “I like to think we’re masters in it, but really, our ancestors were,” he told me. “Because it was do or die. If they didn’t finish it, then they had nothing to wear. They literally would walk around naked.” His process now is rooted more in “art and expression than necessity. Now, we’re not making it to fill a lack of clothes, but rather as an art form that they’re trying to spread to the greater population.”

    As a modern Hawaiian living in a time that offers an excess of fashion stores, in-person and online, Kamohoali‘i wants to keep the intricate art of the bark cloth alive. He is committed to spreading awareness and appreciation for the rich Hawaiian history and culture that comes with this fabric-making process.

    Concluding the session, Kamohoali‘i declared with a wide smile, “There’s more to kapa than meets the eye.”

    Seven people pose, along with two mannequins, all wearing or holding up bark cloth.
    The members of Halau Na Kipu‘upu‘u, left to right: Stallone Chartrand, Laenette Hudgins, Patricia Kainoa Hodson, Kumu Micah Kamohoali‘i, Jerneen Kuauhi, Nau‘ilei‘ilima Murphy, and Arleen Wright Kuauhi.
    Photo by Phillip R. Lee, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Isabel Hohenlohe is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at the University of Edinburgh, where she is studying English literature.

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