Appendix C
Coconut and Cordage

Buck, Peter (Te Rangi Hiroa). 1950. Material culture of Kapingamarangi. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 200. Honolulu: Bernice Bishop Museum Press.(p.20, 123-127)

All houses and canoes are lashed together with native cord, but foreign twine is used for fishing lines and some forms of nets. Cordage of native manufacture is in constant use, and its production is and everyday occupation of the men. The native fibers used are obtained from coconut husk (puru), the inner bark of the wild hibiscus (hau), breadfruit (kuru), and warenga, a member of the nettle family. Of these, cordage made from prepared coconut-husk fiber, or coir, is in general use, and it is doubtful that it would ever be satisfactorily replaced by trade cordage. Cordage of hau bast is used to a much less extent, and breadfruit bast cordage is rarely made now. Cords and threads of warenga are no longer made, but the people are able to demonstrate how the material should be prepared. For ordinary tying, strips of Hibiscus bast are used; for binding food packages for cooking, pandanus and green coconut leaflets serve.

The term coir is used here to denote the fibers in the husk surrounding the coconut shell. It further infers that the fibers have been treated to cleanse them of interfibrous material and so make them suitable for use in making cordage. The native terms used in connection with the material and the products are as follows:

Coconut husk: puru
Husk sections: akanga
Treated husk sections (coir): tukaha
Single fibers: moikaka
To roll on thigh (v.): (e) taka
A rolled strand: amu
Two-ply cord: tirahira
Three-ply cord: hari
Three-ply rope: hari
To use three plies (v.): (e) pini

The husk fiber selected for cordage is obtained from green drinking nuts (rumata). Fiber from mature nuts (matu) is not used as it is held to be too old, hence less strong than that of the green nuts. This is in contradiction to the usage in Polynesia, where the mature husk is preferred. The husk sections (akanga), obtained by husking green nuts for drinking and culinary purposes, are collected in a coconut-leaf basket and soaked in the lagoon for a month or so. Usually a shallow place is scooped out at the bottom of knee-deep water, the husk segments laid in it and some sand scooped over them. Large coral stones are laid on top to mark the spot and prevent the segments from drifting away. When the craftsman requires fiber, he wades out to his soaking material.

At Touhou, there is a large pile of stones about 25 yards from the waterfront, and the husk sections being soaked nearby are usually taken to the pile where the waste material can be thrown into the water. Each segment, in turn, has the short inner fibers (purupuru) torn off and the outer skin (kiri taha) peeled off before it is washed in the water. The bunches of fiber, which are about 10.5 inches long, can be beaten at the stone pile or taken ashore.

I watched a man at Werua beating husk which he had just brought in from soaking. Each segment was twisted before beating to wring out the water. He used a short wooden beater shaped like a food pounder and a basaltic stone as an anvil. The Werua craftsman proceeded to beat (ta) each segment in turn on his stone anvil. Holding the segment by one end with the left hand, he beat the far end so that the fibers spread out in a thin layer. He worked up toward his grip and then folded the bunch lengthwise for further beating. He rinsed the bunch and beat the end he had previously held. The particles of interfibrous material flew off under the beating and gathered in a heap beside the stone. After being beaten, the pale yellow fiber had a fine silky appearance. Each beaten segment adhered together as individual bunches of fiber and they were stacked up at the side. Before adding a fresh bunch to the pile, the craftsman ran his hand along it and removed any short pieces which stuck out. The process of beating is termed ta ti tukaha.

It was noticeable that there was no bad odor to the interfibrous particles which were beaten out, whereas in Samoa, where I watched the process, the waste material had a vile smell. This was probably due to a certain amount of change occurring in the mature husk used in Samoa.

The beaten bunches are dried in the sun and form the tukaha which provides the good fibers for cordage. The dried tukaha is put away in a basket to await the next process.

The preliminary step to making the cordage is the separating of the required amount of fiber from the tukaha bunch and rolling it into individual strands termed amu. As the general term for rolling on the bare thigh is taka, the process of rolling strands is termed taka ti amu. The craftsman sits cross-legged on the floor with the tukaha bunches beside him. Picking up a bunch with his left hand, he proceeds with the forefinger and thumb of his right hand to detach the quantity of fibers necessary to form the strands for the cord he is about to make. This varies with the thickness of the cord required, as different sizes are used for different purposes. For instance, the cord used inn fish traps and nets is much thinner than that used in lashing houses and canoes, whereas much thicker strands are required for ropes.

Having separated the fibers for a strand, the craftsman looks at it and removes any short pieces that are noticeable. If this makes the strand too thin, he adds more fibers from the bunch. He then proceeds to roll the fibers together on the bare right thigh with the palm of the right hand. The first preliminary roll is downward toward the kneecap, but more pressure is applied on a following upward roll, in which the left end of the strand is held in the left hand to insure the twisting of the fibers over each other. In the upward roll, the full width of the palm is utilized, first with the ulnar part over the right end of the strand, then a gradual transfer to the radial side of the palm over the left half of the strand. In this way, a tight, compact strand is formed. The completed strand is of even thickness, but the two ends thin off slightly, a matter of practical use when the strands are added to the plies of a cord. The craftsman continues to increase his pile of amu strands until he has enough for the next process.

The two-ply cord is in general use in Kapingamarangi and Microcesia, rather than the three-ply braid generally used in Polynesia. The general term for two-ply cord is tirahira, but the plural is nia hirahira. It is evident that singular article ti has been fused in the general term tirhira. There is a strong distinction made both in technique and in the use of cord that is twisted on the right thigh and that which is twisted on the left. In referring to them, it is convenient to call them right-hand cord and left-hand cord.

In rolling the right-hand cord, the two prepared strands are held at one end with the left hand, and the downward and upward movements are made with the right palm on the bare right thigh. In the downward movement, commencing at the upper part of the thigh, the two strands, which now become plies, are kept apart and rolled separately. On the upward, return movement, the two plies are brought together and rolled over each other in a tight twist by the firm pressure of the outer or ulnar side of the palm. At the end of the movement, two to three inches of close twist are formed, with the ends to the right loosely twisted. Holding the right end of the firmly twisted part with the left hand, the craftsman unravels with his right hand the loosely twisted part on the right separating the plies, and another section is tightly twisted by the downward and upward rolling movements. When a ply approaches its end, a fresh strand is added to it by overlapping the two thinner ends which, when combined, make up the average thickness of the ply. And so, by adding fresh strands as required, the rolling of the cord continues until the desired length is reached. The term taka is applied to the rolling process for cord, as it is for strands.

Left-handed cord is rolled in exactly the same way, except that the ends of the strands are held with the right hand and the rolling is done with the left palm on the left thigh.

In a right-handed cord, owing to the upward pressure of the right hand, the plies of the cord are twisted over each other obliquely from right to left; in left-hand cord, the reverse takes place in that the twists are from left to right. No matter which way the cord is held, the twists will always run in the same direction, and the differences between right and left cords can be distinguished at a glance. The use of the two cords has been arbitrarily decided, and it is wrong (hua aitu) to use a right-hand cord in canoe and house lashings and equally wrong to use a left-hand cord in making nets or fish traps.

According to native craftsmen, the right hand (kautonu) being stronger than the left (kauihara), the right-hand technique is employed to make firmer and tighter cords which stretch very little. The right-hand cord in general use is about 2 mm. thick and runs about 7.5 twists to the inch. The smaller right-cords are used in making fish nets, fish traps, and minor articles. They may be used to form the plied for the three-ply ropes termed hari. The number of twists may be counted by measuring off an inch with the calipers, placing the upper limb on the right of the cord just where a ply appears to twist over from the right edge to run obliquely down to the left. The left hand (kauihara) being weaker than the right, the left-handed technique is used to made coarser cord with looser twists which are also less in number per inch. The strands are thicker; an average piece of left-hand cord is about 3 mm. thick with 3.5 twists to the inch, or even fewer. These cords will readily stretch and are used for lashing the parts of houses and canoes. When a lashing turn is made, considerable pull is applied before the turn is held in position by pressure with the left thumb against the wood. The stretch, or elasticity, in the left-hand cord is said to make the lashings firmer than if the less elastic right-hand cord is used.

An interesting indication of the origin of the left-hand cord and its probable substitution for three-ply braid occurs in the terms applied to the two kinds of cord. The right-hand cord is termed tirahira henua nei (two-ply cord of this land) and the left-hand cord is termed, in contradistinction, tirahira mai tai (two-ply cord from the sea). Thus the descriptive terms imply that the right-hand cord was well-known and local, the left-hand cord introduced from abroad. On asking informants as to what was used for lashing housed and canoes before the left-hand twist was introduced, they admitted that it was possible that three-ply braid (pita kaha) was much more common in olden times than now. It is possible that the Polynesian people of Kapingamarangi formerly used three-ply braid in house and canoe lashings and that the left-hand cord was later introduced, probably from Micronesia, and adopted because it was equally effective and more easily and quickly made.

In cordage, the terms used for small and large, or thick, are tuwi and tuwe, whereas the terms applied to other objects are turi (small) and tamana (large).

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