Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Paper Tapas from the South Pacific

Tapa cloth or bark cloth is a traditional  textile from the islands in the South Pacific.  You can see some examples of tapa cloth here.

In the school setting we try to duplicate this process using paper.  This lesson was adapted from my favorite book "Art from Many Hands" by Jo Miles Schuman.

The word Tapa is Samoan or Tahitian depending on what resource you consult and describes the border of the cloth. Tapa cloth is made from harvesting breadfruit or paper mulberry trees.  The inner bark of the tree would be beaten to release the fiber much like flax is beaten to produce linen.  This fiber would then be flattened or "felted" if you will into sheets.  The resulting cloth was used for clothing, bedding, and household items.  Special cloth was made for religious occasions as well as for royalty.  It was quite fragile so it was made quite frequently.

Before we can make our Tapa cloth we need to make some design tablets.  Nice thing about these is once you make a set you can use them over and over again.

I used pieces of foam core board as I had some in my stash but you can easily do this on corrugated cardboard from the recycle bin.

Now traditional designs are based in nature including flowers, trees, fish, animals and birds as well as the sun and the moon.  In Tongo these design tablets were made on large leaves upon which thin strips of palm or coconut twine were sewn forming the design.  Here we make ours with regular household string.  Pencil in your design and then using tacky glue, glue pieces of string into place.

You also want to make these texture boards which just have lines of string.

Easiest way to make these is to smear some glue over the board and then wind your string around the board.

Now to simulate the bark cloth we are using brown paper bags or kraft paper.

You want to take your paper and crumple it over and over quite a few times.

You then can iron it out flat.

If you want it colored like the yellow cloth in the picture above, paint it with some tempera after you have ironed it flat.

Most Tapa cloth is based on a grid design.  Using a ruler make out this grid on your cloth.

Now you want to place a design board under your cloth and using crayon in either red, brown, or orange rub to bring up the image.

Now use the striped string board and in a different color of crayon rub this design around the image you have already brought up.

Don't rub the stripes on top of the design just around it.

 You now want to add some touches with some black tempera.

You can use the end of your paint brush for dots.

You can use a piece of cardboard to stamp in a striped design.

Finally you want to paint your border black.

and that's it.  You could spread this project over 2 sessions.  The first to create your design blocks and then a second to rub the designs and paint the cloth.

Fascinating project and there are lots of resources on the web in google images.  Give it a try.

We'll see you next time.


  1. This is a REALLY clear tutorial. thanks!!

  2. Great idea and I love all the images that show you step by step! Thanks!

  3. Lots of work, but it sure pays off.

  4. Spectacular project....I just have to give it a try. My 6th grade art students would love this!


  5. Interesting project. A lot of work.

  6. What a super tutorial, I surely will try this.

  7. Very cool. I live in New Zealand and Tapa Cloth is used a lot by the Pacific Island people. They even wear them as a skirt wrap around to church!

  8. Thanks everyone. It really isn't that much work and the kids enjoy being a part of the full process. Keep your design tablets from year to year and you have an easy back-up project.
    Ida: it was great to hear that Tapa cloth is still alive and well!

  9. Hi! I like to read your blog, so I left you Stylish Blogger Award on my blog. You can check it out here:

  10. very well explained tutorial

  11. What a fabulous project. I can't wait to try this in my class. I LOVE your site and love your projects. Thank you so much for inspiring me.

  12. you are always awesome...what i can say more!!!!hmmmm

  13. This is a wonderful lesson plan! I love the tapa I got from Fiji and was just wondering how I was going to make it into an art project for my students!