By Jan TenBruggencate
It’s difficult to underestimate how important nets and netmaking were to early residents of the Islands.
When you think of a net today, you might falter after coming up with a fishing net, a cargo net, and perhaps a mesh bag for carrying skindiving gear.
But in the days before plastic and metal, the ability to convert plant material into cordage, and cordage into an array of woven or knotted articles was vastly important.
If you needed to carry a calabash or a carved bowl, you might place it in a net, a koko—which was the name for a specialized net used for carrying bowls and other objects. They were sometimes even used for carrying infirm people, like a hammock.
Koko was often made of sennit, coconut fiber. The fiber from the husk of the coconut was used in a number of applications. Since it was resistant to salt water, it was often used in the lashing of canoes.
Nets were slung between the crossmembers of canoes to carry cargo, and large-mesh nets were employed to carry offerings to temples.
Polynesians generally were noted for their use of bark cloth, kapa, which was employed for clothing, bedding and many other purposes. Most people don’t understand that netting also formed the basis of a kind of clothing. Chiefs’ feather capes were tied to a foundation of knotted cordage.
Nets were used in several ways to catch birds. There are stories that nets very much like the set nets used for fishing would be raised up on poles, and birds would be driven into them.
The historian David Malo writes of a technique for capturing owls, which involved placing a net near a nest. The feathers of owls were used in feathered standards or kahili. Wrote Malo: “A net with a wide mouth was laid in the track in which the birds walked to reach their nest.”
And, of course, nets were used in all sorts of fishing applications. The hukilau, in which a net is walked along the bay to capture sealife, is perhaps the most famous.
But there were many more. Sometimes, instead of the net being moved, a net was set with one end at the shore and one in deep water, and people drove fish into the net.
Hawaiians had names for two dozen or more different kinds of fishing nets.
There were wide-mouthed net, a fine-meshed net for schooling fish, and a massive net for deep sea fishing that could be 150 feet long and 30 to 40 feet deep. There were long nets dragged between two canoes.
Nets were made of cordage from a wide range of natural fibers, but three were the most popular. The fibers of the olonā are reputed to create the world’s strongest natural cordage. The fibers of hau were braided into bits of string as well as heavy cables. As mentioned earlier, coconut fiber made good rope for marine applications.
And all were woven into nets.
- Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.