Tapa and Fermentation

tapa with arrow watermark

Making Tapa Eastern Pacific Style

Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter H. Buck) writes in Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands that the tapa makers of the time (1944) wrapped the pre-beaten bark in banana leaves and left it to ret for three days. Today’s tapa makers on Atiu usually beat the bark right away. When making a larger piece such as a garment, several strips are joined together with glue. In times past, retting, a water-aided fermentation process, loosened the fibres and enabled the tapa makers to join the pieces together by a kind of felting (beating). Following a correspondence with Hawaiian kapa maker Dennis Kana’e Keawe, at the Atiu Fibre Arts Studio, at the Atiu Fibre Arts Studio we conducted a number of experiments in 1988/89 to try this method. He joined us in beating the prepared bark. In 2013, I agreed with the art teacher at Enuamanu School to repeat the experiment.

Atiu does not have running streams and water shortage is often a problem. However there is one particular beach, Avatapu, the beach on which the Edna was stranded, that Atiu women use to ret lemon hibiscus bark for making dancing costumes. That’s where, in 1989, we soaked our shaved bundles of banyan roots instead of heating them to enable us to get the bark off the wooden core. This process both softens and loosens the bark and preserves it at the same time. In 20213, the art students came up with an ingenious way of insuring that the bundles would stay together, by plaiting a coconut frond around the bundle.

bundles of banyan rootsHeavy boulders of coral have been thrown up on the beach’s edge at Avatapu. These serve as weight to keep the bundles submerged in the water and in place when the sometimes rough sea tries to steal them away. The beach is right next to our harbour and the cargo boat that brings cargo from Rarotonga to the sister islands had arrived that day.

burying tapa at AvatapuI am not sure whether it was light or salt water – or the absence thereof – that caused the basket’s pattern to be imprinted on some of the outer roots’ bark. Worth conducting more experiments to find out how I can achieve that purposely, I guess, but not right now. The bark we have removed gets rolled up in leaves and is left to ferment.

patterns on soaked banyanFermenting their paper mulberry bark is a distinctive feature of Hawaiian kapa (their word for barkcloth). During the Tahiti Tapa Festival in 2014, Honolulu tapa expert Moana Eisele and her assistant, Kamalu du Preez, demonstrated to us their innovative method. Fermented wauke (Hawaiian for Broussonetia papyrifera or paper mulberry) becomes very delicate to work with. Especially when you plan to make a wider sheet, moving it forward on the kua (Hawaiian for wooden anvil) can be quite a challenge. Moana therefore beats her kapa on a large sheet of plastic.

rolling-out kapa

beating kapa This serves to hold it when folding it over to felt together the fibres…

folding …and if she wants to keep an unfinished piece for another beating session the next day, it is ideal for storage, prevents the bast from drying out and might even keep it fermenting.

storing kapaHawaiians have patterned i‘e kuku (tapa beaters) with which they can ‘imprint’ a watermark into the moist bark that has been finished beeting into a fine sheet. Our Hawaiian friend Kana’e gave us a beautiful i’e which he had carved himself when he visited the Atiu Fibre Arts Studio in 1989. I love working with it, because it is well-balanced and wonderful to handle.

Hawaiian kapa beaterI used it to experiment with a small piece of mati (ficus tinctoria, dye fig). I had also put some triangular pieces of cardboard between the tutunga (wooden anvil) and the bark to try out some different ways of watermarking. As we can see here, it worked.


Tapa and rust (5)

Untying knots

Excited and curious, Kareen and I return to Ava Tapu beach. Will the frame still be there? I don’t really feel like digging it out of the sand again. I would be sad to have lost such a valuable piece of rust. Does that sound strange? One (wo)man’s trash is this rust dyer’s treasure… As we descend I am relieved to see the boomerang-like shape of the frame still stuck in Edna’s bow. The bark has dried and is stuck to the frame. Untying the knots in the builders line is a fiddly job.

Peeling off tapaProtrusions

I carefully peel the thin bark off the rusty metal. The coloring is so wonderful, ranging from yellow to rusty-brown with black stains where the frame has made contact with the soaked bark. The frame’s protruding screws have moulded the bark and embossed their shape into the material. Do I really want to beat it again?

Coloured like a flame Sea through

I like the bizarre, flame-like shape the tapa has now. Held against the light we can appreciate how thin the bark is. It is firm and yet soft to the touch. What must it have been like to wear such bark as a garment?

Don't remove tapeEven the “dont-remove tape” has acquired new colours in all shades of the rainbow. The wash-away frame has become my favourite rusting tool. I wrap it with a new piece of cloth to have something to look forward to when I come back next time.
Re-wrapping the rusty frame

The wash-away frame

Rusty frame

In search for rusty bits and pieces that will help me dye fabrics, I wander into the bow of the Edna. She welcomes and rewards me instantly. I find this amazing frame with protruding screws on both sides that promise me regular rusty dots – my inner eye can just see them…

I drag the frame to the front where I have placed the collections of “fabrics of the day” and some lengths of builders line. There is better light here and some coral boulders that serve me as work tables and chairs. Soon the frame is safely wrapped with salt-water-soaked cotton fabric and bound tightly.

Wrapped frameThe sea has been calm. I decide to place the frame in front of Edna’s bow, high up on the beach in the sand in order to let the frame’s weight add some extra pressure to the fabric for better marking.

When I return the next day, I am shocked. According to my time calculations it should be low tide and the sea calm. Instead high waves are still breaking on the bottom of Ava Tapu beach and – my precious frame has disappeared! Disappointed I scan the beach area.

Buried fabricEventually I find a small cloth surface that protrudes through the pieces of coral and sand, buried between two heavy boulders right by the edge of the sea some ten meters or so away from where I had placed the wrapped frame. With a stick I try to dig it out but to no avail. I mark the area with my digging stick, just in case. I will have to return with a shovel. Normally I power-walk down to the beach which I will certainly not do with a shovel on my shoulder…!

Kareen, a new friend, arrives to stay with us for a week. I have seen on her blog that she is an excellent photographer. Kareen offers to help me with the digging so we take the car down to the beach.

Buried frameWhen I look for my mark it has – of course – disappeared. After some searching I glimpse a rusty fabric patch under a different boulder and the digging can begin in serious. Sand and water have sucked and pushed the wrapped frame deep under.


The two of us take turns in digging, scraping, pulling and photographing until we are finally rewarded with some movement. The frame’s sides have come unwrapped. Both have broken shorter.

Digging outThe fabric has acquired beautiful patterns of all shades from black to orange. The material seems intact with the exception of a few holes. Like sand-washed jeans, I think. If ever I want to ‘age’ fabric artificially, now I know what to do: bury it in the sand at Ava Tapu beach.

After some more digging we can grab at the fabric and pull, pull hard and – yay! Finally the sand releases the frame and its wrapping cloth.

Untying knotsUncovered fabric
I can’t wait to untie the knots to release the fabric. What a delight of colours!

Rusted wrapping clothIt is just the right light this late afternoon.

Washing out sandThe sand needs washing out.

Sun patterns on floating fabricThe sun paints patterns on the floating fabric.

Rust and reefIt is low tide, the sea and the sky are of a deep blue. Orange growth on the reef echoes the colours of Edna’s new cloth.

KareenRelaxing from the hard work we are happy about the result

Orange sunset All we want now is an orange sunset.


Rusty Edna

By now I have discovered which rusty parts of the Edna give me no prints, some prints and really good prints. Rust results from exposure of iron or steel to oxygen (air) and moisture (water). The process can be intensified through contaminants such as salt. I found information on the Internet about the different kinds of rust. There are four easily distinguishable categories:

Red rustRed rust or hydrated oxide (Fe2O3•H2O) which results from constant exposure of iron to air, water and, in this case, salt.
Yellow rustYellow rust or iron oxide-hydroxide (FeO(OH)H2O) which can be found in areas that are constantly exposed to high moisture, like standing water.
Brown rustBrown rust or oxide (Fe2O3) which is a drier form of rust and most likely atmospheric, i.e. a reaction to humid air and contaminants such as salt.
Black rustBlack rust or iron (II) oxide (Fe3O4) which forms in a low-oxygen environment like under water.
Suspended cloth with rust chipsFor a good result of my dye experiments, the overall firm contact of cloth and oxidised metal is important. I learned by experiment that this excludes a large amount of rusty remains which cannot be properly wrapped either for their size or place, as e.g. on the bow of the vessel where attachment is a challenge if not impossible.

Beach dog

A little bay at the end of Ava Tapu beach where bits and pieces are stuck between blocks of coral has become my prefered ‘harvesting’ ground. My dogs enjoy our excursions there, because they like playing with the crabs that hide between the boulders.
This rusty rod is my absolute favourite rust supplier. It leaves wonderful traces on my pieces of cloth.Rusty stick

First experiments

Banner - art experiment

Exploring materiality.

Well-washed recycled cotton fabric, soaked in sea water, is my first experimental material.
Recycled cotton fabricsCasuarina and dandelionI wrap pieces around rusty areas on Edna’s bow. To include a connection between place, Ava Tapu, and material, I add some plant material growing here, such as Casuarina needles and the nicely-shaped leaves of a weed that looks similar to dandelions. These are wrapped up in the wet fabric and the ‘sausage’ wound around the rusty metal.

First rust stainsWhen I return the next day to check, nothing much has happened. Ironically, the best rust stain (left) has appeared on the banner (above) that I have attached to alert possible viewers to the purpose of these wrappings. I pour sea water over the wrapped areas and cover them with cling film to keep the moisture in while the sunshine heats the wrapping. These are left for a couple of days. Once I can see the first rust stains, I unwind the fabrics and take the bundles home with the plant material still inside.


Au sticks and fibresAtiu women use Ava Tapu beach to prepare kiriau, Lemon Hibiscus (Au – Hibiscus tiliacea) bark fibres for their dancing skirts. Long stems of young Au trees are shaved; the wooden cores with the inner bark still attached are then bundled and submerged in the sea. Heavy coral rocks serve as a weight to keep them there for a week so that the fibres can ret. Retting is a microbial process that aids in separating the bast fibers from the wooden core by breaking the chemical bonds that hold the stem together. If the sea has not stolen the bundles, the loosened bark is bleached a beautiful white. Women take the fibres home and usually leave the sticks on the beach. They have been useful for many of my projects…


Eucalyptus bark dyeAt home, pre-soaked Eucalyptus bark has given me a reddish brown dye. Together with some rust flakes collected from Edna and a dash of vinegar that I add to the dye pot, I hope it will result in a black ink.

Rust-printed cloth


I wind the rust-treated fabric-leaf bundle around a lemon hibiscus stick and simmer it in that concoction for an hour. As expected, the bundle has turned black (or charcoal rather…) due to chemical reaction of tannic acid in the Eucalyptus dye with the iron oxide.

Dyed bundleI know that opening the bundle the next day is early, as the plants have not had much chance to deposit their colour magic on to the fabrics. But with this first bundle I can’t wait. The result is promising. The casuarina needles have printed visible traces, the dandelion has left a resist print.

Now I know what I will and won’t use again.
First dye result
Dyed result - detail


Memorial stone and plaque, Marae Orongo i Tai - Atiu

…ancient rituals
Memorial plaque, Marae Orongo i Tai - atiuIn November of 2008, Abercrombie & Kent and the passengers of the Clipper Odyssey sponsored an archaeological project, implemented with the help of the Atiu people and under the direction of Dr. Hiro Kurashina and Dr. Rebecca Stevenson, to re-establish and clear the location of the sacred welcoming site of Marae Orongo i Tai. I was contracted to record the project progress to make a video documentary. Sadly, today, two of my interviewees have already passed on. The knowledgable elders told us about Ava Tapu, the Sacred Harbour, and the function of the adjacent sea-side marae.

Orongo Marae - AtiuIn pre-European times, when a foreign canoe approached, it was never known whether the seafarers came as friends or as foes. On the inland marae  in the district of Mokoero across from the chief’s court, the priest consulted the gods.

Large stalactite at Marae Orongo - Atiu
If it could be assumed that they came as invaders, a huge stalactite , now sleeping in the weeds at Marae Orongo, was erected as symbol for the war god Tutavake.

Tutavake's head, Marae Orongo - Atiu


The god’s head – today located on top of the marae’s platform – placed on top of it. Fierce battles ensued in which the brave Atiu warriors remained victorious. Papa Sam Koronui told us that, presumably, cannibalistic rituals then  took place at Marae Orongo i Tai. However if the voyagers were relatives or came as friends, a feast was prepared for their welcome.

Passage ascending through rocks to Ava Tapu - AtiuAs the fate of M/S Edna shows, access to the island at Ava Tapu landing is tricky because of treacherous currents. Once the voyagers made it safely across the coral reef, they would have to ascent to the island through a narrow passage (left) framed by razor sharp fossilized coral. The late Papa Ina Teiotu told us that the seafarers were ‘fumigated’, i.e. they had to walk through smoke (scented with sandalwood??). Women decorated them with sweet smelling flower ei, crowns and necklaces, before sharing food and refreshing coconut water at the welcoming site to celebrate their successful journey and safe arrival.