Pacific: Tonga

In both the islands groups of Tonga and Samoa, barkcloth was and is usually made using the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree.

Large pieces are created in Samoa and Tonga by pasting sheets together at their edges, using arrowroot tuber paste, unlike the felting process used in Tahiti in central Polynesia.

Most Tongan barkcloth, ngatu, is produced in Tongatapu, the largest island, of volcanic origin. The soils in the coral islands are not suitable to grow the paper mulberry tree, which at present is the only source of barkcloth in Tonga, although formerly breadfruit tree bark was also used.

Large sheets of ngatu are made up of the smaller sections (called feta’aki) beaten out from the inner paper mulberry bark by placing two layers at right angles to each other on a wooden table on which the required designs in the form of kupesi, rubbing boards, are set. How much of the designs appear and how dark they are depends on the thoroughness of the rubbing; see numbers 74, 75 for different designs. In general the designs appear as darker brown motifs on a lighter brown ground. Sometimes the designs are left like this without further emphasis. The more specialized task of adding freehand drawn lines as borders or to highlight certain design motifs is left to skilled women.

The most popular type of barkcloth in Tonga is called ngatu tahina, or white barkcloth, meaning barkcloth with a white border. It is made for everyday use such as clothing, bed coverings, room decoration and also for ceremonial presentations. The patterns derive from a wide range of forms; birds, flowers, geometrical shapes or simply the Tongan crest.

More of the tahina barkcloth has in the past been made and is still being made in Tonga than in any other part of Polynesia, with an increased emphasis on its significance within a ceremonial context as well as an item of trade.