Fiji's fabulous fabric: masi
Updated: May 14, 2021
Although Captain James Cook never landed in Fiji, the Fijians trading in Tonga whom he met in 1770 impressed him. "The Feejee men... were much respected here... if we might judge from several specimens their skill in workmanship; such as clubs and spears, which were carved in a masterly manner, cloth beautifully chequered, variegated mats, earthen pots; all of which had a cast of superiority in their execution."
While we can hardly lament the death of lethal weapon-making, it is a shame that boat-building and sailing skills have disappeared from Fiji. If it weren't for the tourist industry, traditional house-building would also have vanished. But the art of patterned cloth-making Cook so admired 250 years ago is still practised widely and highly prized. This fabric is called masi in Fiji and tapa in other Pacific islands.
What is masi?
Masi is a fabric made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree. Most villages keep a grove of very young saplings to make masi from their tender, fine bark. However, the island of Vatulele, south of the biggest island of Viti Levu, is acknowledged all over Fiji for excellence in masi production. I was lucky to travel by boat to Vatulele, where craftswomen demonstrated all the stages of masi-making. I also enjoyed a typically generous lunch and bought more magical masi than I need. Here's a photo of my favourite. I had a wonderful day, even though I was sea-sick on the rough return trip.
How is masi made?
After peeling the bark off in long strips, women soak it in water before scraping off the top layer with a sharp shell. They then pound two strips together with a mallet to produce a strong fabric. The resulting 5cm strip is beaten out to a width of half a metre. These lengths are invisibly lapped together with taro starch so that pieces of any size may be produced. Missionary Thomas Williams (1858), in Fiji and the Fijians reports that he measured a chief's festival garment, which turned out to be 180 metres! There is a wonderful room dedicated to masi with historic pieces of enormous size in the Fiji Museum in Suva.
In pre-colonial times, much of the finished masi was left plain and undyed - an off-white colour. But a quantity was pattern-dyed in red-brown and/ or stencil-printed with red-brown and black, to produce the "beautifully chequered" cloth seen by Cook in Tonga. The symbols in my Vatulele piece above represent different crops and natural elements.
Uses of masi
In the old days, masi was used for curtains, tablecloths, men's garments and turbans. The higher the status of the chief, the more material was used in his dress and train. Even today, for special ceremonies, modern chiefs pile on metres of masi. Below is a 20th century paramount chief (yes, a woman!), wife of Fiji's first prime minister and president.
Fijians, while malaria-free, were the only Pacific islanders to invent and use mosquito curtains - made of masi as fine as gauze, naturally!
Today, Fijian families show their guests respect on formal occasions by displaying as much elaborate masi as possible . Masi also remains a valued formal gift. For example, my university colleagues presented me with this lovely circular piece as a farewell gift. In addition to tourist demand for masi souvenirs, these current uses maintain a healthy demand for this ancient fabric in Fiji today.
Fijians are so proud of this craft that a Fiji Airways plane was decorated with traditional masi motifs.
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