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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands



Bark Fiber Cord

Two kinds of fibrous material are used in the making of cordage, bast of fau bark and fiber of the coconut husk. The bark is stripped from the tree and soaked in fresh water, after which the outer layer is peeled off. The bast is laid on a scraping board (papa valu fau), where the remainder of the outer bark and interfibrous material are removed with a shell—a very simple procedure after the bark has been thoroughly soaked. After being dried and bleached in the sun, the fibers are easily separated by rolling them between the palm of the hand and the thigh (milo). Cord made of fau is used primarily for fishing line and nets.

Twisting is done by holding several fibers, in the middle, between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand and across the right thigh. They are rolled downward firmly with the palm of the right hand into a strand 5 or 6 inches long. Cord is twisted by the same process. According to the number of ply desired in the cord, 2 or 3 strands of twisted fibers are held between thumb and forefinger, radiating from under the thumb. The strands are held tightly during the commencement of the sweep of the palm of the hand over the thigh, twisting each strand on itself. Then the strands are released, and the end of the sweep of the hand rolls them together into a single cord. The strands are lengthened by adding new, partially-twisted strands with their ends overlapping those with which they are to be incorporated. These strands are rolled together before being twisted into the cord.

Fau cord is used primarily for fishline (alo). Because of its greater strength and durability it is much preferred to the cotton line sold by trading schooners. All large-meshed nets for fishing and snaring birds are made of page 139 fau cord. To preserve the cord fishlines and nets, they are always washed in fresh water after being used in the sea. Thread for the lashing of fishhooks, tattooing instruments, and surgical lancets is made of twisted strands composed of a few fibers of fau.

Sennit Cord

A twisted cord of coconut fiber is used for suspending wall screens, for light house lashings, and for fishlines. The fibers are taken from either green or mature nuts selected for their long husks. The nuts are husked, and the split segments of husk put into baskets and weighted with lumps of coral to soak in the lagoon. The former population of Atafu built small circles of coral slabs laid in tiers at the water's edge, in which to soak their coconut fiber. One of these circles still remains (p1. 10, B) and is used by some of the present inhabitants. After several days of soaking, the fibers are removed from the husks, washed in fresh water, and dried in the sun. The matted fibers are finally separated by beating them on the flattened side of a coconut log with a short stick to loosen the interfibrous material so that it can be shaken out. The strands of the cord are made by the same twisting process used for fau cord. Because of the stiffness and roughness of the material, twisting the strands of coconut fiber into cord is done in the hands, with one end of the cord tied to a wall post of the house.

Although the join made by twisting together the overlapping ends of the fibers in the process of rolling is usually employed in making sennit cord, this method does not always make a cord strong enough to withstand the strain applied to it. A second and stronger join is made by doubling the end of the introduced strand over the shortening strand. The new strand is laid overlapping the shorter strand of the twist and with the end projecting above. One twist is made in the cord, the shorter strand and the new strand being wrapped by the second strand of the cord. The end of the new strand projecting upward through this twist of the cord is doubled over to lie along the second strand of the cord, and the twisting process is continued, enclosing the new strand end.

Sennit Braid

Three-ply braided sennit rope is the most widely used of all cordage made by the natives. It derives its name, kafa vaka (canoe line), from its primary use in lashing the parts of canoes. It is also employed in lashing house parts and thatch, and as carrying lines for waterbottles and wooden fishing baskets. A heavier three-strand sennit braid (kafa palu) is made for deep-sea fishing, especially for use with large wooden Ruvettus hooks (palu).

The preparation of the fiber and the process of rolling the strands for sennit braid are identical with those described in the making of sennit cord except for one additional step. In preparing the strands for braid, a number of fibers sufficient for a strand are selected and carefully arranged, the short ones being plucked out and tied together with a single fiber. This is placed across the page 140 middle of the bunch, one end is twisted several times around it, the other end is doubled back, and the strand is spun between thumb and finger to secure the fiber. The stand is then rolled on the thigh.

The braiding is done by holding the three strands in the left hand, the thumb securing them in the proper position and preventing them from unraveling. The thumb also moves the side strands into the middle position as the middle strand is carried alternately from side to side. The braiding is worked away from the body, and the finished line is coiled at the worker's left side. The addition of new strands to the end of a ply is accomplished by the doubling technique, as in joining new strands in making sennit cord; but here the projecting end of the new strand is doubled back on a second ply after two turns of the plaiting and before being carried into the braiding. The line is finished by braiding until one ply has ended, then twisting the remaining two plies on the bare thigh with the open hand, and knotting the end.

Five-ply sennit braid is termed kafa tupilaulima, kafa toku niu, or kafa kalanga. This also is used for deep-sea fishing. The strands of this braid are rolled similarly, although made of thicker and shorter bunches of fiber. As each new strand is added, it is drawn between thumb and fingers, first dipped in water to make the fibers adhere tightly together while the strand is worked. In plaiting five-ply braid, the plies are secured to a stake or post and worked toward the body. New strands are added by overlapping the ends with diminishing plies, and the end of the braid is finished by dropping one ply within the braid, rolling the two remaining pairs of plies into two twisted strands, and knotting the tips.


Cord and braid are wound in cylindrical coils for storage. A loop coil is first made as a foundation in the length desired for the cylinder. The loop is wound transversely with the free end of the braid from one end to the other. From the finishing end the braid is taken in three spiral turns up the cylinder, turned at right angles, and brought down again to the commencement point. This spiral winding is continued, each turn of the braid running parallel to the last set of spirals. When the coil is completed it has a geometric pattern of banded triangles.