Lesieli K. Tupou
Teacher and Weaver, Retired

Mosikaka weaving is special to Tongans, who identify themselves with the craft. It is a distinct art form that belongs to Tongans and no one else. Historically, mosikaka basket making was done for royalty alone. At the same time that mosikaka weaving is revered, it is also is a very rare, not only in terms of the resource material used but also in the process of doing the actual weaving.

It is very unfortunate that this traditional form of weaving was long forgotten. However, a lecturer at a teachers’ college in 1968 saw the need to revive and safeguard mosikaka weaving in spite of it no longer being practiced. She organized a group of female students to do a research on mosikaka weaving. They got hold of the only mosikaka basket from the Tupou College Museum, with the permission of the principal. That mosikaka basket is now kept at the Tonga National Museum. The leader of the group found a damaged part near the bottom of the basket. She carefully unraveled it, noting how the weaves were constructed, and she managed to figure out the weaving process. The group’s findings are now published in a book called Ko e Tala ‘o e Lalanga (The Story of Weaving).

The weavers of the olden days made mosikaka baskets from single strands of coconut fibers. For such finely detailed work, Tongan women must have had good eyesight, lots of patience, and heaps of determination. In addition, they were also very trusted individuals as mosikaka weaving knowledge, skills, and techniques were secrets reserved only for the weavers who worked for royalty alone. However, protecting mosikaka weaving ironically led to its decline because the skills and techniques were not handed down or even made known to others—once an expert weaver passed away, there was no one else to continue with the tradition.

Mosikaka weaving is very foreign to the ears of young Tongans. The majority have never heard of mosikaka weaving or seen a mosikaka basket. Therefore, building capacity in the community and in schools is very important. Several awareness programs have been instituted. In June 2008, there was a workshop to train unemployed young girls and housewives in Vava’u and newspapers reported on the workshop displays. In addition, there were cultural displays and festivals in 2009 and 2010. Small group training for women in community churches has also been popular. Capacity building and awareness activities are best channeled through schools and women’s groups in the communities although it is a slow process to cover the outer islands.

To make the mosikaka weaving easier for beginning weavers, some adaptations and concessions have been made. For example, instead of practicing on expensive coconut fibers that are also very difficult to work with, beginners start by using pandanus, a very common and much-used material in Tonga. The thick pandanus leaves are split finely, and beginning weavers are taught basic mosikaka weaving techniques. Once they get the process right, switching to doubled-twisted coconut fibers is a smoother transition. However, using the pandanus for mosikaka weaving can be more productive than using the coconut fibers, and more items can be produced and ready for sale in a shorter time. This makes pandanus the preferred material for weavers for individuals who have mastered the techniques and skills and who need a source of income.

Mosikaka weaving is an identity of Tongan cultural heritage. It needs reviving and safeguarding, and it needs to be taught and practiced in schools and the community.