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Tapa, A Tongan Treasure

Our project

Tapa and Tongan weddings

Using tapa in church

My views on the tapa tradition

The story of grandmother's tapa cloth

The tapa making process

How tapa cloth is used and valued

Research process

Our team


Marcellin College

Tapa , A Tongan Treasure

Our project

This project is about Tongan tapa, or ngatu as it is called in Tonga.

Tapa making has a long history in Tonga. Europeans first heard about it when James Cook visited Tonga in the late 18th century, but it had begun many years before that . He must have been impressed, because not only did he write about all the different ways in which it was used, but he also collected pieces to show people in his home country, England, what it looked like.

In the old days, tapa was used for many different purposes such as bedding, sheets and towels, but now that cotton materials have become available, tapa has been replaced to some extent. It takes skill and effort to create tapa cloth and it is now used mainly for special occasions. Tapa is given as gifts or offerings at funerals, weddings, and jubilees etc. As well as being used as a decoration, tapa may also be worn at weddings and other similar joyful celebrations where your Sunday best is expected. The giving and receiving of tapa binds Tongans together and helps to retain cultural values of honor, obligation and respect.

Fortunately the tradition of creating and using tapa is still very strong in Tonga, and many women are skilled tapa makers and decorators. As you walk around Lapaha, the sound of tapa being beaten is frequently heard from dawn to dusk as the women are busy making tapa.  Making tapa brings women together, as it is usually done in groups. They still make tapa in the traditional way, but over time new patterns have been added. Villages, and often families, may have their own distinctive patterns.

Tapa is a living art form.  To understand what tapa is about, you need to about the Tongan way of life. You also need to know how Tapa is created, what it looks like, and how Tongan people use and value it.

Our project is a collaboration between students and their families who live in Lapaha, Tonga, and between Tongan students and their families who have settled in Auckland, New Zealand. You will discover as you read their stories, that some tapa traditions are the same, and some are different in New Zealand. But above all tapa continues to be seen as a great Tongan treasure, both by Tongans at home and by Tongans abroad.