Hawaiian bark cloth was originally called kapa which literally translates to “the beaten thing.” Kapa was used for clothing, bed covers, items of trade and gift items, indicators of wealth and status and objects of ceremonial or religious events. (Romanchak)
Clothing consisted of three main items of apparel: the pāʻū or skirt for the women, the malo or loincloth for men and the Kihei or shawl for members of both sexes. (Romanchak)
Most kapa was made from the inner bark of the wauke plant (paper mulberry) because it made soft, white kapa. The bark is stripped, soaked, and then compressed into sheets with special patterned wooden beaters and finally dyed and decorated.
To make kapa, Hawaiian women used wooden mallets to pound the strips of bark together to form sheets of various sizes, textures, and thicknesses.
The kapa sheets were then decorated with stamps and painted with brushes made from the seed of the hala (pandanus) tree; kapa was colored by native dyes and decorated with block printing. (Arthur)
For bed covers, Hawaiian women made kapa moe consisting of five sheets of kapa. The top sheet was decorated, but the four sheets underneath were plain white kapa. The set of five sheets were sewn together on one side with thread made with strips of kapa. (Arthur)
The top layer was known as the kilohana, it was colored and decorated with pigments; the collective name for the inner kapa sheets was ‘iho.’ (Brigham) The loose-leaf design allowed the user to choose how many layers needed on a given night.
“(T)apa moe (sleeping cloth), made principally for the chiefs, who use it to wrap themselves in at night, while they sleep. It is generally three or four yards square, very thick, being formed of several layers of common tapa, cemented with gum, and beaten with a grooved mallet till they are closely interwoven. The colour is various, either white, yellow, brown or black according to the fancy of its owner.” (Brigham)
“During the ordinary summer weather along the coast the native use of the kapa moe in a close grass house would have been impossible to a white man, so warm is this covering. Sleeping in an open cave on the summit of Mauna Loa (13,675 ft) …”
“… I could not bear a kapa moe over my ordinary clothes, although water was freezing in the calabashes at my feet. In the morning the bedmaking in a native house consisted in carefully folding the kapa moe and putting it in a safe place.” (Brigham)
A notable kapa moe belonging to Princess Kaʻiulani was installed at the Art of the Pacific gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (not currently on public view.) it is described as an unusually large five-layer kapa moe.
Kaeppler noted that the design of Kaʻiulani’s kapa moe may metaphorically incorporate the saying, “He aliʻi ke aloha, he kilohana e paʻa ai,” “Love is like a chief, the best prize to hold fast to,” in honor of Kaʻiulani. One corner of an underside white layer of the kapa is signed “Kaiulani.”
Kapa moe were gradually replaced by blankets. Later, another bed cover, the Hawaiian quilt, came into regular use.
The wives of American missionaries introduced the patchwork quilts and their construction to Hawaiians. The first missionary women arrived in 1820, and were warmly welcomed by some of the highest-ranking Hawaiian men and women.
Lucy Thurston, the wife of Asa, one of the first missionaries, recorded in her journal: “Monday morning, April 3rd (1820,) the first sewing circle was formed that the sun ever looked down upon in his Hawaiian realm. Kalākua, queen-dowager was directress.”
“She requested all the seven white ladies to take seats with them on mats, on the deck of the Thaddeus. Mrs. Holman and Mrs. Ruggles were executive officers to ply the scissors and prepare the work….The four native women of distinction were furnished with calico patchwork to sew – a new employment to them.” (Thurston)