taking care of tapa cloth

good tapa 2

Tapa cloth has always played a big role in New Zealand decorating due to its ready availability. Go back thirty years and there was barely a student flat in which someone didn’t have a large tapa (or at least a scrap) pinned to the wall. These were often tourist items, acquired by parents and grandparents on Pacific Island holidays or latterly from second-hand shops (where they were deposited by other people’s grandparents).  Auckland’s burgeoning Pacific Island population also became a source.

However our fascination goes back way longer than that to the Victorian collectors of Pacific material who used tapa to decorate their houses or as a background to other ethnographic displays such as clubs and spears. (There is a fascinating book of Tapa collected by Captain Cook in the Sir George Grey Collection, Auckland Public Library.)


Major Alexander’s office, Government House, Wellington (1903)
Ranfurly family :Photographs. Ref: PA1-f-194-45-1. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22878649

Even now there is a lot of tapa cloth around and it’s a mix between the serious collectible, the tourist oriented mid-century productions and those pieces brought in by  migrant families. Between Peter and myself we’ve collected a fair bit of tapa individually over the years. This now hangs in the back hall, one of the spaces we have yet to decorate in any official way. There they have other items on top of them in a Victorian manner. We like tapa, but we haven’t bought new ones for years. The fact that we are thinking of getting on with the back hall had us recently thinking about tapa gain.

Then last week tucked in a corner at M&F were a group of rolled up tapa all of different origin, shape and condition. They came with an allusion to a local estate of good provenance and clearly had some age to them. They were also somewhat worn and neglected. Some of them had been sewn down to what seemed to be old roller blinds. Others had hessian attached suggesting they might once have been pasted directly on to scrim-lined walls. Some had been used as drop cloths during interior painting projects. We didn’t mind much because we wanted some pieces that we might cut up to deal with difficult to cover areas of hall wall.This seemed a good idea, because there’s plenty of tapa around and these were shagged or so it seemed.

at MF

An unassuming bundle at Maidens and Foster

On getting them home and unrolling them it seemed that some of the pieces were a little more than touristic and that in some cases they appeared rather older than first thought. Change of approach required.  It seemed that the likelihood of these being chopped up and pasted to the wall any time soon had changed. We had to take these a little more seriously and progress with a little caution.

detail: the standout piece, not large, but with great pattern and depth of colour.

detail: the standout piece, not large, but with great pattern and depth of colour.

There is still a little research to be done on one or two of the pieces. Some simply need flattening and some clearly are minor fill, probably destined for the original purpose for which they were acquired. One item stands out. It was protected in a roll of other pieces and its deep colour and good condition has already singled it out for potential framing.


So how does one care for tapa – the good tapa that so many New Zealanders have?  First of all to be upfront, what follows is not professional museum advice, for that go to the handy sheet produced by the Bishop Museum in Hawaii: www.bishopmuseum.org/research/pdf/cnsv-tapa.pdf‎

The big thing to remember is that this is an organic material, the bark of a tree and that it is susceptible to insects. Some of those we’ve acquired have nice big holes where insects have chomped through – look out for them before they get to your holdings. They just aren’t eating the bark sometimes they’re eating the paste that holds thing together – so be doubly vigilant.


insects make a lasting but unwelcome impression on tapa

Keep tapa out of direct light which is the general (but oh so hard to live by) rule for almost anything of interest in life, books, furniture, watercolours and textiles

Humidity always plays havoc with organic things and low humidity is a problem, one that is not going to happen in sweltering North Island New Zealand, but the rest of the world keep this in mind. Low humidity makes fibres brittle, high humidity can cause molds to grow.

taped tapa

Historically fascinating but acid bearing paper and tapa are not a good mix.

Avoid acid bearing materials like card and paper in close proximity to your tapa. One of our examples has a paper tape glued to the edges as reinforcing – not a good idea.

Most New Zealanders pin tapa to the wall with drawing pins. Of course this is not good – more a result of familiarity breeding contempt. Framing is best for key pieces but the float method required is generally costly and tapa are usually on the big side for artworks. You can try draping over a rod – covered in acid free padding or you can clamp and hang from the top edge – if they are of good weight and in good condition.

All that said tapa remain good value from a decorative point of view. They are really quite tough and do make a strong statement. Some lesser examples remain sacrificial.

At the moment ours are lying around the studio. Peter calls this process ‘Robert Louis Stephenson-ing up’ the Studio. A woven mat has taken up residence on the dining table with one of the tapa (currently glued to an old blind on top of it). Another is weighted down with tins of tomatoes and Sheffield plate candlesticks in order to get the creases out it. Others are draped over pictures hanging on the wall. The rejects are bundled up awaiting their fate. The last, a round one is placed on a stool, under the care of one of the cats who has taken to it – not a practice recommended by the Bishop Museum I am sure.

cat tapa


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5 Responses to taking care of tapa cloth

  1. Hi,
    Thank you for the info on tapas and all the gorgeous pictures, especially the one stand out piece you bought. I have two long ones I bought in Sydney in the 80s. They are bold designs, just brown pigment on bark, but very nice geometric patters. I am now in Soller, Spain. The climate is hot in summer but can get humid. My tapas are in OK condition but they are wonky, I don’t just mean they have folds, the bark itself is wonky so I can’t hang them flat on a wall. Do you know of any safe method of flattening them out so I can hang them? Currently I have banged tacks into the wall and attached the tapas with bulldog clips. But this is really not visually very nice. I would be really appreciative if you have any ideas. Thank you. And good luck with your project.

    • Editor says:

      I’m not an expert but the wonkiness probably helps them adjust to the change in humility etc. Te bull dog clip method is a good one. It might sound a little silly but the answer is to find some really smart look bulldog clips which can be found.

  2. curious says:

    I have just stumbled across this and am particularly interested in the cloth that the cat is sitting on, do you have an image of it laid flat? also what happened to the rest of the tapa just curious!


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