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Tonga Peace Corps Volunteer Anita Taylor says There’s More to Native Handwork Than Meets The Eye
Tonga Peace Corps Volunteer Anita Taylor says There’s More to Native Handwork Than Meets The Eye
There’s More to Native Handwork Than Meets The Eye
By Anita Taylor
I sat in church the other day lazily fanning myself and trying to pay attention to the sermon, not an easy feat in a language you aren’t fluent in, when a brisk breeze rushed in bringing a welcome cool breath of air. As I returned my fan to my lap, I studied the clever weaving that had gone into making it. I thought of all the tourists that come to the shores of Tonga to poke through the handicraft and gift shops on the hunt for bargains and souvenirs and wondered if they had even a remote clue how much work went into the crafts they so eagerly try to bargain down. I’ve been here two years and even I haven’t had the opportunity to watch all the projects the Tongan people are so good at, but the ones I’ve studied or even participated in have given me a whole new appreciation for the traditional crafts of any country and the incredible ingenuity of mankind.
Take tapa (or once decorated called ngatu), for instance. Long before cloth was a reality in this part of the world, the Polynesian people had somehow figured out how to strip away the outer bark of the paper mulberry tree and use the softer, whiter inner bark to make cloth. Mature trees measuring about 1½ inches in diameter, are cut at the base. After a day or two of drying, the outer bark is pulled away and discarded leaving the soft fibrous inner bark, which is then beaten with mallets made from ironwood against long wooden anvils to separate the fibers. This hollow beating sound is a part of the background noise in places where the mulberry trees are most plentiful, part of the music of Tonga. Finally, after having been flattened and widened to about 18 inches, it will be combined with another piece and beat again. Long strips of this incredibly soft cloth are glued together with a paste prepared from half cooked manioke (tapioca.) This takes not just hours, but days to make it soft and pliable.
When all the strips are ready to be made into a large ceremonial ngatu, two dozen or more women will gather. Seated in two long rows with a half round log curved, side up, between them, they begin by laying out the narrower strips, spreading the manioke glue and adding more strips. As the cloth grows, the women on one side will carefully roll the completed section towards the other side and every hand lifts the roll to the other side again. More strips are added, more glue, more smoothing and patting. Roll again and shift. Even once all the strips have been prepared this will take all day. The women sing and gossip while they work and when the task finally done, they have a small feast and rest, laying about in the shade until its time to go home to family and chores.
Next, intricate designs are created by placing the tapa over a form with patterns on it made from coconut fronds and rubbed with coconut husks dipped in vegetable dyes to bring out the design. After it is completely dry, stenciled designs will be hand-painted in black, dark red and brown dies derived from mangrove bark and candlenuts. This finished product is called ngatu. A lot of work to create fabric, but perhaps not so much more than turning cotton or flax into fabric before the days of machinery.
Once upon a time, clothes and bedding were made from this fabric. In today’s world, the Tongans prefer woven fabric clothing and the decorated ngatu serves many ceremonial purposes and the amount and quality of it owned are a measure of a family’s wealth. Great lengths of ngatu are an important part of every wedding and it is given as gifts at graduations and birthdays and any royal event. Bodies are also wrapped first in a length of tapa to be buried.
Weaving, like tapa seems simple, yet involves hours and days of careful harvesting and preparation even before the weaving began. The fan I held on my lap was made with coconut fronds, the strong central rib giving strength to the fan with a delicate filigree of dried pandanus woven over the rib frame. Most Tongans carry everyday fans, hastily put together from a coconut frond, but without the careful designs. They are sturdy and lasting and I have several of those too, but this one was a gift from two young girls when I visited their village.
What the tourists see most of here in Vava’u are an enormous variety of baskets and mats, woven from a plant called pandanus. Preparation of these leaves is startlingly complex, depending on the eventual use. To begin with, the leaves are formidably armed with thorns down the center of each 8 to 10 foot leave and along both edges. Women deftly strip these thorns and split the leave in half. The simplest of several different types of preparation takes these leaves and boils them for a few hours. Then they are left in the sun to dry and finally, rolled into huge wheels waiting to be woven into every day mats. For a darker hue, the dethorned leaves are left under mats, turned to prevent rotting, until they turn the color of chocolate. Then they are braided and hung in a dark place to dry before being rolled into wheels.
The finest mats are woven from what is called kie. Here, the soft side of the leaves are peeled away from the coarse side, tied into bunches and carried to the sea where they are anchored below the low tide line and left for up to two weeks. Once brought back ashore, they must be rinsed carefully to remove all the salt. Often they are hung on clotheslines and left to be washed by the frequent heavy rains. When they are finally free of salt and dried by the sun, they are nearly white. They too, are rolled into wheels until weaving commences.
Mats can be the simple every day ones, with strips on an average, three quarters of an inch wide of coarse, tan colored pandanus. Next comes the more durable and more pricey double woven mat, usually with strips a quarter to three eighths of an inch wide. One side of the mat is the heavier tan pandanus and the top will be the nearly white boiled pandanus. Sometimes women bury pandanus in mud for several days to turn it black and they use this to weave patterns into the mats. No matter what kind of pandanus is being used, women nimbly slice the strips into the desired width using a shell, or more often the folded over lid of a tin can. Then they slide the blunt side of their tool down the length of their strips to make them pliable and easy to weave.
Weaving is sometimes a lone task, but far more often it will be the work of several women working together. A typical mat ten feet wide by 20 feet long will take three women working all day a minimum of two weeks for the double mat of finer strands. Once upon a time, this would have been the finished product, but Tongans love bright colors and usually decorate their mats with multicolored yarns, sometimes just with a fringe around the edge and sometimes with more intricate all-over designs.
Baskets of all sizes, shapes and uses are woven from coconut ribs and pandanus. From the enormous laundry baskets, to shopping baskets, sewing baskets, bread baskets down to the small, delicate jewelry baskets, all have designs woven in using white, brown and black. My daughter was married recently and she had decided the flower girls at her wedding would carry baskets made here in Tonga. The women eagerly supplied the desired baskets but were genuinely puzzled by the request that they be plain white without designs.
Lovely trays are fashioned from woven pandanus and coconut fronds, also with patterns. Sometimes they will have a solid bottom with a piece of tapa bonded to a board, and then the sides are woven onto this. Hanging baskets, coasters, placemats, handbags and dozens of other things are all made with the same painstaking preparation and devotion to design.
The cultural dress for Tongans includes a finely woven mat tied around the waist. These mats are made from kie. The finest of them are woven from strands as fine as thread and take years to make. They are fine as silk and incredibly valuable. These become family heirlooms and it isn’t uncommon to see a man wearing one his father or grandfather wore before him for special occasions. More commonly, this garment, called the ta’ovala, is woven from strips between an eight and a quarter of an inch wide. Even these are soft and amazingly pliable. Worn every day to work, or worship, they take on folds and mold themselves to the man’s body and become as comfortable as an old pair of shoes.
Women still wear the ta’ovala for weddings, funerals and while in mourning, but everyday wear has now become the kiekie, which is a woven waistband with strips hanging from it. They are traditionally made of pandanus or fau or hibiscus bark. The variety is endless, from swirls of tiny braids, to heart shapes fashioned over forms of nails. Some of these are woven with incredible delicacy and are often decorated with small shells. I have been given several kiekies for my personal use and one of them was made of soft quarter inch hollow braided cotton rope. I am often told that this one isn’t really Tongan which makes me laugh because I’ve seen Kiekies made from things like old video tape, nylon and plastic twine or garish patches of cloth with dozens of buttons sewn on.
Before I came to Tonga, I took baskets pretty much for granted. Some were attractive, others cheap, or utilitarian. Now that I’ve watched and participated in the immense amount of work that goes into creating these by hand, there will be baskets, and there will be “Baskets.” In fact, I think, I will always look at handcrafted products in a whole new way, wondering what went into their making. Perhaps I’ll picture the man or woman sitting cross-legged on a dirt floor, or perched on a stool before a cluttered bench while deft fingers fashioning things they learned from their fathers and mothers and their grandfathers and grandmothers before them. Or a whole village coming together for the final assembly of a bigger project. The time and patience these people devote to their craft is amazing when placed beside our instant-everything way of life and they are justifiably proud of their work.
(Annita Taylor of New Harbor is finishing her two years Peace Corps assignment in Tonga, South Pacific.)