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Samoan Barkcloth — the Fabric of a Culture

Samoan siapo and elie express a Polynesian heritage

By Diane HelentjarisPublished 2 years ago 5 min read
Samples of Samoan cotton elie fabric. Photo by author.

The syrupy “Oldies” tunes in the white wedding tent stopped. Relatives and friends, gathered in the glorious Virginia garden, clinked glasses. Soft conversations hummed. Like a thunderclap, Polynesian drumbeats began. A young woman burst from the back of the tent and barreled upfront to the dance floor. Her short dress flashed like a brilliant tropical bird in the dim light. Barefoot, crowned by a wreath of flowers and circlets of greenery at her ankles, she accented each beat of her dance with a hip poke to the right or to the left. The teenage boys stopped horsing around to stare slack jawed as the music pulsed.

Earlier, the bridal party had floated down a grass path surrounded by the spicy scent of ancient boxwood. Vivid blue columns sheathed the bridesmaids. Bare-shouldered, the women’s dresses echoed the lines of a lavalava, the traditional sarong-like wrap worn by Samoan men and women. I envied them as I reflected back to my days as a bridesmaid swathed in a series of frou-frou dresses. The groom’s mother later explained the striking fabric, printed with tropical flowers, had been brought over from her homeland, Samoa. I liked it — a lot — and was impressed that a land no bigger than Washington, DC could manufacture their own unique textiles.

Our cousin, the groom’s father, had been sent as a young man to American Samoa on a job assignment. Like other westerners who discover the Pacific islands – from Gauguin to Robert Louis Stevenson to Marlon Brando – he fell in love with the place. He also fell in love with a woman, married, and had a family. Forever after, he straddled two cultures.

Samoan siapo 1890s. Photo compliments of Wikimedia Commons.

Years after the wedding, I would be introduced to the original fabric of Samoa, siapo — barkcloth— when our cousin died. We gathered from our homes in Samoa, New Zealand, Australia, and America in a small Virginia chapel. The relatives from Samoa had brought a large piece of brown and white barkcloth along on their seven-thousand-mile trip. They explained how special this rug-sized handmade textile was, the significance attached to its use, its dignity. They reverently laid out the siapo before our cousin’s coffin in a ceremony which gave voice to his melded world.

Fabric handmade from bark is found across the Pacific islands. The Polynesian people follow the same general method to make their fiber cloth, differing only in details and nomenclature. Tahitians call it tapa. Hawaiians, kapa. Samoans, siapo. The barkcloth is incorporated into weddings and funerals, exchanged as ceremonial gifts, and sold in small pieces to tourists. Although barkcloth disintegrates in the rain, it still appears as modern-day wedding outfits and other clothing articles.

Siapo draped over table in Samoan District Court, 1915. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Historically, the fabric created partitions in rooms, adorned leaders, and wrapped the bodies of the deceased. Brought back by World War II GIs who served in the Pacific, it inspired the Atomic Age cotton upholstery fabric known inaccurately as “barkcloth.”

Creating siapo, unlike weaving a Harris tweed, is not the work of an artisan laboring alone in a cozy cottage. Many hands — those of women and men and children — work together to make the barkcloth. Their work can be done entirely out in the open ocean breeze with only a thatched roof overhead. Children can be tasked with removing side-shoots as the paper mulberry trees grow to keep the inner bark free of large holes. Men and women together chop down the saplings when they reach an inch or two in diameter and drag them into a pile.

Late 19th or early 20th century siapo. Photo compliments of Wikimedia Commons.

Multiple steps follow, as if the amount of labor must reach an endpoint deserving of veneration. Chopped into manageable lengths, the siapo maker bites or cuts around the circumference and strips off the bark. The white bast, or inner bark, which will become the siapo is stripped form the outer bark. The bast is moistened, scraped with a series of shells, then draped over a log. Women sit singly or in pairs and rhythmically pummel the bast with a wooden mallet. It widens impressively. Like pizza dough stretched in a pan, holes happen. These are patched with scraps of bast and an adhesive made from local plants. Sheets of bast are layered and attached to make the large pieces.

The cloth is decorated with plant dyes and clay. To make the brown base dye, the bark of the blood tree (Bishofia javanica) is scraped, and the shavings dampened and squeezed. Black dye is made from the soot of roasted kernels of the candlenut tree (Aleurites moluccanus). A red dye comes from the seed pods of the lipstick tree (Bixa orellana), and yellow from turmeric roots.

Western Samoan stamp of woman adding final highlights to siapo. Photo by author.

Designs are geometric or reflect Samoan life with turtles, shells, starfish and similar objects. They are applied either freehand or by the use of a pattern board called a ’upeti. Originally, pattern boards were made by weaving together coconut ribs, bamboo strips, leaves, and other plant fibers. In the 1920s, carved wooden pattern boards came into use. The pattern boards are covered with dye, the barkcloth laid over it, and then rubbed in the same way children make coin rubbings. Additional dye and clay are added on top and rubbed in as well. Once this is completed, the patterns are usually highlighted in black dye.

Women huddle together over the siapo, applying the dye with a seedpod rather than a brush. The end result, befitting of such a communal effort, is harmonious. There is no way to determine where one person’s work began, and another’s ended. The siapo reflects the group’s effort, rather than shining a light on one artist. This video gives a vivid depiction of the process of making siapo.

Cotton changed Polynesian fabric and vice versa. Painting by Paul Gauguin in Tahiti betwee 1892 and 1894. Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1800s, cotton fabric came to Polynesia and cotton began to supplant barkcloth. Samoan artisans and the government have worked to keep the tradition alive. In the typical back-and-forth of culture collisions, siapo influenced cotton fabric. The Samoans adapted the design motifs used in siapo to decorate the cotton cloth. Known as elie cloth, today these fabrics come in vibrant colors as well as the established earthy tones. Pre-made dyes offer a widened palette of colors for stenciling. Old recycled x-rays have been adapted as upcycled stencils.

1896 Samoan man with siapo. WIkimedia commons.

Elie fabric and other Samoan-style prints can be readily purchased in Samoa and online from Samoan retailers. The Samoans are a far-flung people and shops dedicated to their fabric can be found around the world. Even Anchorage, Alaska has two Samoan fabric shops.

Siapo continues to have a revered place in Samoan culture. Small pieces from the tourist trade and the occasional larger vintage piece can be found in online auctions. Here’s a lesson for children about siapo which includes an easy activity practicing siapo techniques.

Cloth has a story to tell if we listen.


About the Creator

Diane Helentjaris

Diane Helentjaris uncovers the overlooked. Her latest book Diaspora is a poetry chapbook of the aftermath of immigration.

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