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Samoan Material Culture

Colored Designs on Bark Cloth

Colored Designs on Bark Cloth

With the exception of red earth ('ele), the dyes described are applied to cloth in a state of solution, and penetrate the pores of the object so treated. This general method, universal throughout Polynesia, comes under the term "dyeing." The methods of dyeing vary. To clearly appreciate one of the Samoan methods, not hitherto described in detail, it is necessary to define the described methods used by the Polynesians. While recognizing that they are all forms of dyeing, it seems permissible to use the term in the more restricted sense that the word conveys to the average reader.

The material is immersed and soaked in the dye solution. In the Cook Islands, the dye was contained in a wooden bowl and the completed cloth soaked in it until it assumed the right shade of color. Many types of cloth were so treated. The color thus showed on both sides of the cloth and permeated through the material. Designs in other colors could be subsequently added by other methods.

Painting. The color designs were painted freehand on one surface of the page 305completed cloth with some type of implement used as a brush. The color showed on one surface only except in thin cloth where some of the dye soaked through and made irregular markings on the reverse side.

Ruling. Single, double, or multiple parallel lines were drawn across one surface with special implements devised for the purpose. This method was common in Hawaii.

Stamping or printing. Special patterns carved on wooden stamps were stamped or printed on the surface of the completed cloth. In Hawaii, narrow stamps of bamboo were called ohe kapala. In the Cook Islands, larger square or rectangular frames made of wood with crossing lines of dry coconut leaflet midribs were called rakau takiri pahoa. For both, the dye was dabbed on the stamp or frame and then pressed down on the material. The process was repeated over the surface to complete the design.

It has been erroneously stated that the Samoans used the printing method. The error evidently dates from Wilkes, who was in Samoa in 1839, and who states (42, vol. 2, p. 150):

The tapa is often printed in colors in patterns. This is performed in a mode similar to that practised in Europe before the introduction of copper rollers. Instead of engraved blocks, they form tablets, about as thick as binder's boards, of pieces of large cocoa-nut leaves, by sewing them together. One side of the tablet is kept smooth and even, and upon this coconut fibres are sewed so as to form the required pattern, which is of course raised upon the surface of the tablet. These tablets are wet with a piece of cloth well soaked in the dye, after which the tapa, which for this purpose is well bleached and beautifully white, is laid upon them and pressed into close contact. The dye is made from herbs and roots, and is of various colors.

Samuel Ella (11, p. 167), after describing the upeti frame as a board on which "cords of sennit or hisbiscus bark were fastened across and across," says, "These cords were smeared with dye, by a cane brush or ball of siapo and then the native cloth was carefully adjusted upon the board and rubbed by hand or beaten with the betel to take the impression."

The statement that the tablet was first moistened with the dye and the cloth afterwards placed upon it was evidently accepted by Brigham (4, p. 110), for in speaking of the Hawaiian printing types, he remarks that they "were a far better, if more laborious, substitute for the Samoan upete, and the similar wholesale stamp of the other southern groups." The inference is that the method of applying the dye was the same.

The correct technique had been mentioned by Pritchard but has been overlooked by subsequent writers. Pritchard (24, p. 130) had previously written as follows:

The printing of the patterns is done by spreading the cloth over a large board, on which are fastened (by a particular process) the ribs of the coconut leaf, and while stretched out it is rubbed over with a reddish-brown juice, obtained from the candlenut tree, which grows in all the islands of the Pacific. This juice marks the cloth only where the ribs of the cocoa-nut leaf raise it.

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The statement that the cloth was rubbed and not the ribs of the coconut leaf is correct. Though it may appear a detail it makes a totally different technique and constitutes the vital difference between rubbing and printing.

The Samoan tablet, which is called upeti (not upete), was not used as an engraving block or a stamp with the printing process. Wilkes commenced wrongly by stating that the tablet was made of large coconut leaves, whereas large pandanus leaves (preferably paongo) are used. In rubbing the cloth, the dye soaks through and stains the tablet as if it had been directly applied. Wilkes saw the stained tablets and the cloth stained with similar designs. He, therefore associated them together in what seemed the only obvious technique. I was six weeks in Samoa before I saw the upeti actually used. Not having read Pritchard, the same obvious association had been held by me as by Wilkes and Ella. The above is stressed to show that even what seems only too obvious should always be verified. Hence to the methods of dyeing must be added the following process:

Rubbing. Dye is applied to the upper surface of the cloth by rubbing to bring out the design of a tablet placed beneath the cloth.