Post 64 — Tapa the Morning to You (Part 2)

Carolyn's birthday tapa

Carolyn’s birthday tapa, which hangs in her dining room some fifty years later.

Some of the souvenirs never got sent home because Jean couldn’t bear to part with them, and this was particularly true of the tapas. She loved the earth tone palettes and the primitive designs. Although she was raised in a quiet suburb of Detroit, she had the bargaining skills of a Turkish vendor setting up shop at the Grand Covered Bazaar in Istanbul, but once she found out how labor-intensive the tapa cloth process was, she felt guilty haggling about price. It didn’t stop her, but she sure felt guilty.

Jean had always had an artistic side but had never had an opportunity to explore it growing up. The uninhibitedness of the island seemed to shake something free in her, and she started printmaking and painting. Or maybe it was the humidity. Either way, her admiration of the tapa design work and skill drove her to not only collect tapas but also to explore her own creative side.

“Tapa cloth is one of the oldest Samoan cultural art forms. Also known as Siapo, the process has been passed from generation to generation. Even so, it has fast become a nearly extinct art form. Siapo is not only a decorative art, it is a symbol of Samoan culture. Its uses include clothing, burial shrouds, bed covers, ceremonial garments and much more.

The preparation process involved in the materials used to create Siapo is an art itself. The canvas of Siapo is the bark of the paper mulberry tree. This cloth is known as u’a. The process of preparing the u’a includes harvesting, stripping, separating, scraping and beating. Ideally the paper mulberry tree stalk is harvested when it is about ten to fourteen months old or approximately one to two inches in diameter. The bark is then stripped and separated with a sharp knife. Once the outer bark is removed, the bast or inner part is placed in a bowl of fresh clean water to keep it moist. The next step is scraping, which removes the remaining bits of bark and green growth from the bast and softens and spreads the fibers. To insure proper scraping, three different clam shells are used. Each shell has a different degree of coarseness. . . A wooden beater know as an i’e and a wooden anvil known as tutua are used in the beating process. These tools help to widen the u’a while it is beaten. Once the process is complete, the u’a is laid out to dry.

The dyes used in Samoan Siapo also come from nature. The dyes are o’a, lama, loa, ago and soa’a. O’a is the brown dye and is the base for all other dyes. It is extracted from the bark of the Blood Tree, also known as the Bishofia Javanica. The bark of the tree is scraped and the shavings are collected and squeezed, producing the o’a. As o’a ages, it darkens. It starts as a pale tan and matures into a rich dark brown. Lama is the black dye and comes from the kernel of the Candlenut. The Candlenut is burned, the soot is collected and it is mixed with the o’a to make lama. Loa is the red dye and comes from the Lipstick Tree. When the tree blooms, it produces pods filled with seeds. These seeds are mixed with o’a and the loa is extracted. Ago is the yellow dye. It is extracted from roots of Tumeric. After the skin is scraped off of the plant, the root is then grated and the juices are extracted from the pulp. This preparation often takes longer than the actual design and painting process.”*

[My neighbor’s] house girl came to get me because her aunt is selling tapa cloths. They are made out of roots that have been pounded into paper-like pieces, all layered together to make a solid piece, then decorated.

I bought a large square one with palm and banana trees, a fale and some decoration at the top. Everything is drawn in black, the file is colored light tan and the grass is light green, all on ice cream-colored background. It is pretty primitive looking but it sure is Samoan. The auntie was there and I got her to sign her name and the date. We couldn’t get her down on the price but at least we got more for our money.

Mine is pretty messy but she did a beautiful job on Carolyn’s. Hers is a round one with a design on one side and on the back it says Happy Birthday Lynn, Nov. 22, 1964. I am going to use the round one as a birthday card and she can keep it for her hope chest.


*Tapa information from, a wonderful site with all kinds of information about the process of making tapa as well as the artists who created the pieces.

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