In Tonga men take care of the growing and harvesting of hiapo (paper mulberry tree) to make ngatu, but the preparation of ngatu is carried out only by women. A woman may have her husband or brother grow hiapo for her or, today, she may buy it at the market. The process of preparing the bark from hiapo takes a long time and a lot of skill!
Firstly, the cut stems of the hiapo are set aside for a few days to allow the main wood of the stems to shrink away from the bark. The woman will then make a notch with either a knife or shell, and pull the bark away from the inner wood. Then she pulls the layers of the bark apart with her hands, separating the outer layer of the bark from the white inner layer called tutu. It is now about as thick as a piece of cardboard.
She then winds the tutu around her hands, ties it, and leaves it to dry in the sun for a few days. Next she rolls up the dried strips, ten pairs at a time, and stores them.
If you ever go to Tonga, unless there is a funeral going on in a town or village nearby, you will probably hear the sound of beating. This beating is the next stage of the process in making ngatu .
When the tutu is ready to be beaten, a woman will soak the roll of dried strips in water for a few hours (depending on how old and therefore how thick the tutu is), then scrape the strips to remove any bits of outer bark or other debris that may darken the tutu. She then puts the rolls of tutu back in the water to soak.
Only two tools are needed for actually beating the tutu. The tutua (a sort of anvil) is a piece of wood shaped like a log. It is a usually a few metres long and about 20 cm wide, which means a number of women can beat tutu at the same time. The tutu is hit with an ike (hardwood mallet). An ike weighs about a kilogram and is four-sided. One of these sides is flat, the other sides have grooves going down them.
After pulling a strip of tutu between her fingers to get rid of excess water, the woman places the strip on the far side of the tutua and pulls it towards her, beating it with the ike. Once she has beaten the entire strip of tutu, she turns it around and starts again. She does exactly the same thing with another strip, then joins the two together by folding one strip over the other.
She then repeatedly beats the combined 10 cm wide strips with the ike. Any folds in the tutu are tapped with the flat side of the ike. Eventually she creates one piece of barkcloth now nearly 50 cm wide called a feta'aki. The feta'aki is then set out to dry and flattened. And how is it flattened? Put under a sleeping mat and slept on!
Now the bark cloth is ready to be decorated.