Ngatu is the Tongan name given to Tapa cloth or decorated bark cloth. Ngatu is made from the bark of hiapo ( mulberry tree). In Tongan culture the men tend to the hiapo tree when it is growing, but once it is harvested the women will start processing the Hiapo bark to a Ngatu. The process of making Ngatu begins with stripping the bark from the tree then separating the inner and outer bark. The stripped bark is then cut into strips and beaten – which transforms the strip into a wider piece resembling a fibrous fabric.  When a number of pieces have been produced, they are dried and placed under a mattress to flatten them. A design is then printed on the cloth with a stencil and the pieces are joined together with a paste made from arrowroot. After the design has dried then the extra designs are then painted onto the cloth. 

The main function of Ngatu is to be a presented as a gift given at weddings, funerals and other special occasions. Larger pieces of Ngatu are considered a symbol of wealth. Ngatu also plays an important role in funerals. Immediately after somebody dies, the body is placed on a bed of ngatu in a room covered in ngatu and mats. 


Mat weaving is one of the ancient Tongan handicrafts. Mats are used for a variety of purposes. Mats are often used for bedding and flooring. They are also presented during special occasions such as births, deaths and weddings. Mats are often passed down from generation to generation and historically they are a symbol of social status. In Tongan funerals, bodies are wrapped in mats as a sign of respect.


Mats are also used as Ta’ovala, which is a mat that is worn around the waist. Wearing the ta’ovala is also a sign of respect. It is said that in early times, men returning from long voyages at sea would cover themselves up with mats before visiting the village chief.

According to Tongan folktales; A group of Tongans once arrived by boat at the Tu’i Tonga. They had a rough voyage and their clothes were tattered. So they cut the sail of their boat (which was made from mat) and wrapped it around their bodies. The king was so pleased by the sacrifice they had made to him of their expensive sail that he ordered this dress to be court dress from then on. The Tongan waist-mat probably shares a common origin or inspiration as the Samoan valatau or vala waistband often donned by orators and chiefly sons (manaia) and daughters (taupou) on festive occasions and rituals.

The standard taʻovala, for formal and semi-formal wear, is a short mat coming halfway up the thighs. It is wrapped around the waist and tied with a kafa, a traditional rope often made of woven coconut coir or human hair belonging to a deceased ancestor. The mat worn on festive occasions, such as to one’s own wedding, is much larger, finely woven, and often very nicely decorated. This fine variant of ta’ovala is known as the ngafingafi, and corresponds to the ‘Ie Tōga of the Samoans. The value of individual ngafingafi is determined by its colour, which may range from bleached white to a rich shade of tan or even coffee, depending on its age; the darker the colour, the greater the age, and the higher the value and prestige of the fine mat. Likewise, the taʻovala for a funeral is also a huge mat, but much coarser and undecorated, woven from the rougher side of the pandanus leaf. If the wearer is of an inferior rank to the deceased, then the mat to be donned would be old, well-worn, and tied in such a way as to wrap around the upper body and veil the head. The older and more torn it is, the better. All these special mats are kept as precious heirlooms.


Ta’ovala is made from a range of different materials:

  • Strips of pandanus leaves, usually unpainted.
    Although sometimes black strips are used, the taʻovala is rarely wholly black.
    The strips range from coarse (15 mm or so as for funerals) to fine (a couple of millimeters, as the taʻovala loukeha, in which one is dressed to visit the king).
    Mats are always woven by hand, especially the fine mats. Making fine mats is labor-intensive, takes a long time to complete, and therefore they are expensive. The oldest and most valuable Tongan fine mats are preserved by the Tongan royal family to wear on formal occasions.


  • Strips of hibiscus bast fiber, called fau.
    Same as the pandanus leaves, but not as coarse and as such, they can be plaited in a variety of patterns, which is faster and cheaper than weaving them by hand.
    Most of the civil servants’ taʻovala are made in this way.


  • Plastic, particularly material obtained from old flour bags.
    Old flour bags are preferred as an alternative source material that is quickly available – does not require lengthy preparation.