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Ngatu, or tapa cloth, is one of Tonga’s most important possessions. It is an asset treasured from generation to generation. Before money was introduced to our people, ngatu was similar to the value of money in the olden days.
In Tonga, while men are the head of the family, making tapa cloth is the women’s job. The women prepare tapa cloth and mats and put them away for special occasions like weddings, birthdays and funerals.
In the plantation, or backyard, the men plant the trees that tapa cloth is made from. This tree is called the paper mulberry tree. The men look after the tree until it is time to cut it down, and then women take off the inner bark of the tree and soak it in water overnight before placing it flat on a long, wooden log and beating it with a wooden mallet. The wooden mallet has four sides. Three sides are flat but the fourth side has ridges. It is to help to extend the length of the tapa. When the beating is completed the tapa pieces are hung up to dry. The dry tapa pieces are then joined with a glue made from tapioca, or cassava, to make a larger piece. The tapa pieces are joined both lengthwise and widthwise so that it is strong.
One piece of tapa cloth is about 30cm wide. It is traditional to glue 52 segments lengthwise and 13 pieces widthwise to create a large tapa cloth. Fifty-two segments are for the weeks in a year. Thirteen segments are for the thirteen lunar months. When the pieces have been joined, stencils are placed on top of the working board and then our dye is rubbed on top of the tapa to re-appear on the tapa cloth. The final step is to re-paint the pattern already shown with a darker dye that will not fade. The tapa cloth is then left in the sun to dry before folding it away for storage.
These days, tapa making is still a strong tradition and many Tongan women continue to make tapa cloth. Tongan women who have migrated overseas continue to make tapa, but unfortunately they are having to introduce modern materials that look similar to the natural materials but are more convenient and not as time consuming to make.