June 23rd, 2018 / posted by paularath

If I were asked to choose Hawaii’s most iconic fabric, I would pick palaka.

Palaka is our signature plaid, much like a tartan is for a Scottish clan, but palaka is available to anyone.

According to “The Art of the Aloha Shirt” by DeSoto Brown and Linda Arthur, palaka was first seen in Hawaii on 18th century sailors from Europe. The sailors wore loose-fitting shirts called “frocks,’ that were made of sturdy, heavy cotton woven in white and navy blue.

Palaka is a Hawaiianized version of the word “frock.”

Palaka became popular during plantation days, when it was used for shirts, skirts and aprons. The fabric became especially prized because it was sturdy enough to protect the workers from the sharp, and sometimes treacherous, cutting edges of sugar cane and pineapples. Its durability was highly prized, much in the way denim was prized among the work force in California around the same time.

Author and textile historian Barbara Kawakami writes: “By the end of the nineteenth century, as immigrants came to Hawaii and worked in the fields and mills, the use of palaka spread because of its durability, coolness and design. The palaka shirt and palaka jacket were garments commonly worn by plantation workers of Portugese and Hawaiian ancestry. The earliest documentation of palaka shirts and jackets occurs in pictures from 1895 to 1900.”

Hawaiian paniolo (cowboys) began wearing palaka garments for their rough ranch work and by the 1920s and 1930s, palaka became a household word.

By 1930, Kawakami writes, “palaka had become closely identified with the local population.”

I remember when Arakawa’s General Store in Waipahu was the primary purveyor of palaka garments. During the ’70s, palaka became quite the fashion statement and I think it was around then that Arakawa’s introduced  other colors, such as red, green, pink, purple, yellow and black. The iconic store closed long ago and now Kaimuki Dry Goods has the best selection of palaka, in a wide range of colors.

Kaimuki Dry Goods on 10th Avenue in Kaimuki carries high quality palaka in many colors for $10 a yard.

Nowadays, palaka is made of durable cotton twill which has the added benefit of breathe-ability, a distinct advantage in our tropical climate.

 

Palaka goes purple in this cute bucket hat by RYP Designs of Honolulu.

Palaka is no longer limited to shirts and jackets. RYP Designs incorporates palaka into their accessories, quilts and yoga-related products.

RYP’s yoga meditation quilt.

Palaka visor by RYP Designs

Island Slipper often makes palaka rubber slippers, and I can vouch for their sturdiness and longevity – I’ve had a pair for more than eight years!

For his Spring-Summer 2018 Collection, island designer Kini Zamora featured palaka in new ways. Zamora put a decidedly personal twist on Hawaii’s iconic fabric when he actually used a palaka-like plaid that looks like it was stretched on the loom. He also includes a few palaka pieces in his current collection, such as men’s pants and a fanny pack.

Top by Kini Zamora    Photo courtesy www.kinizamora.com

 

Couture designer Stefano Pilati prizes palaka too! Featured in Vogue magazine.

Even high end European designers have adopted palaka in their collections from time to time. Stefano Pilati created a chic red-and-white palaka skirt in his collection for Agnona several years ago. The stylish skirt features welt pockets at the hip and a clever panel of diagonal palaka to give it extra kick.

Watch paularath.com for a hot new designer, Leah Redmond, a Punahou grad living in L.A., who has created a fabulous line of garments made entirely of classic palaka.

  • Paula Rath

 

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