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Book Arts in Tonga, part 1: Making the tapa cloth and koka dye

February 4, 2011

Last summer I mentioned that I was invited to go to Vava’u, Tonga as a guest instructor and to participate in an artists’ book collaboration between the BYU Art Department and local Tongan craftspeople. I promised to report back. I didn’t forget… I’m just a slow-poke.

The point of the trip was to immerse American students into Tongan culture by staying with Tongan families and working side-by-side with Tongan craftspeople and artists (I think that perhaps all Tongans are craftspeople and artists–it seemed to me that all Tongans know how to make tapa cloth) to make Tapa Cloth, native dyes, and learn a bit about traditional Tongan design. Each participant would then create an artist’s book using the cloth and dyes we had made the previous week. But let’s just get to the photos, eh?

Day one started out by sorting suitable (bark? leaves?) for weaving a long snake-skin-like strainer for the bark/ink.


Long thing strips of mulberry bark (the inner soft bark, not the outer bark) were soaked overnight, and then we were shown how to beat the mulberry with heavy wooden mallets. The bark is beaten, then folded, beaten some more, then folded again, and so on. When the bark is sufficiently wide, the whole thing is unfolded and the creases hammered out of the tapa. I took a short video of the beating process so that you can properly appreciate what our ears (and arms!) put up with for two days:

Notice how skinny Gary’s bark was in the photo above, and how it’s now been beaten nice and wide… It takes a lot of beating to get each one to that point.

Once it’s made, it’s hung to dry. I made this one (I was pleased with myself to complete one, but the Tongan women put us Americans to shame–some of our hosts made at least a dozen each).

Meanwhile, we were shown how to scrape bark from a koka tree to extract the dye. This tree will recover, but I was told that a koka tree’s bark can only be taken once during the tree’s life (or maybe it was once every several years. I don’t remember for certain).

As you can see, the koka tree bleeds red.

Progress on the weaving of the strainer for the dye (sorry I don’t know the Tongan word for this!).

Mixing the bark with water to help extract the dye.

Getting the bark ready for straining.

The weaving is wrapped around the bark and tied up tightly.

Then it’s hung by the two ends,

A beam is placed through the loop, and the dye is strained as the beam is twisted with a downward pressure. Here’s a video taken by my friend of the extraction:

The ink is a reddish brown if used raw, and it some of it is also cooked to make a rich dark brown color.

There you have it, the making of tapa cloth and koka dye. Next we learned a bit of design, a bit of bookbinding, and then set out to create our books. But I’ll save that for another blog post (hopefully soon), since this took a while to write!

Book Arts in Tonga part 1 / part 2 / part 3 / part 4

14 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2011 2:23 pm

    Ok,couple of months and part 2 will be here! :p Very interesting,it is always fascinating the fact you also noted-people living in tribes are most of the times all rounders in craftsmanship.They can perform many many tasks related in extracting raw materials,preparing them etc.I’m curious to see the outcome of the used dye.I suspect it will be a vivid deep red.Eager to see the finished book too.It must have been an unforgetable experience overall!

  2. February 9, 2011 12:12 pm

    I love learning about stuff like this. Knowing the process makes the product that much richer. What an amazing experience.

  3. April 17, 2013 10:51 am

    Hi Lili,

    I found this by accident, but I have to say, your work is absolutely beautiful. And I found your post on koka-dye making very helpful as I myself just finished a post on tapa-making in Tonga. Thank you for all the great pictures and detail!


  4. August 5, 2014 4:53 pm

    this is awsome

  5. Talita Sili permalink
    April 20, 2020 4:28 pm

    I found your blog very enriching as my son is doing an assignment on how to make tapa the traditional way, and I have to say your work is astonishing. I love it

    thank you

    • Lili permalink*
      July 7, 2020 11:12 am

      I’m so happy to hear that it was helpful!


  1. Book Arts in Tonga part 2: Learning Tongan Design and Making Books « Lili's Bookbinding Blog
  2. Book Arts in Tonga part 2: Learning Tongan Design and Making Books « Plants Need Water
  3. Books as art « Binding Obsession
  4. Books as art | Binding Obsession
  5. How to Make Tongan Tapa Cloth (Ngatu) | Tonga Time
  6. Eiwani Finau
  7. Buying barkcloth | Flextiles
  8. Cloth from the Mulberry Tree - Travellers Tails

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