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Making a Pa'u Skirt

The pa'u skirt is the quintessential garment for the hula dancer. You will see this gathered at the waist, calf-length skirt worn as the costume in nearly every traditional hula number in the kahiko ...ancient style of hula. The skirt may be of unadorned solid color poly-cotton, it may be a calico print or it may have a hand printed border at the hem of the skirt. There are many variations on the basic theme. Some pa'u skirts have a single casing at the waist. This is for the cording which runs through it to tie the garment to the waist of the dancer. Others have several rows of casing so that several cords are inserted and tied one-by-one at the waist. Some pa'u skirts use elastic rather than cording. There may be one row of elastic or there may be 5 or more rows of elastic at the waist.

Decide if your pa'u skirt is to be open on one side or sewn closed.

There are two additional choices available for constructing the pa'u skirt. Do you wish to have the skirt tied at the waist, and therefore open on the side? Or do you wish to have it sewn in a compete circle inserting elastic to secure it at the waist? The choices are as follows:

(1) Make your skirt using one or more rows of casing through which you will run a cord to be tied at the left side. This will result in a skirt that is open on the tied side.

(2) Make your skirt using one or more rows of casing at the waist through which you will run elastic. This will result in a skirt that is sewn together to create a complete circle.

The consideration about which style to make your pa'u might be considerations relating to the ease of construction versus authenticity in style. In the days prior to western contact, the pa'u was made of five layers of kapa secured at the waist by a cord. It was, therefore, necessarily open on one side - that is, not sewn together as a complete circle. The length of the fabric was bunched or gathered with the hands, and the cord placed so as to result in the proper length for the dancer. Then the cord was tied securely at the waist, and the fabric distributed around the waist of the dancer in a graceful way. In present day versions, we sew a casing for the cord, run the cordage through the casing and tie it at the waist with the opening on the left side. We will approach that method of construction first. Before you cut your fabric, you must make one more choice about style that will determine the construction of your pa'u skirt. One is whether to use a single piece of fabric five yards (or less) in length.(Three yards makes a very acceptable pa'u skirt.) The skirt is turned down the entire length of the fabric at the waist and a casing for the cord is stitched. The second choice involves cutting the width of the fabric to the proper skirt length into five separate pieces (or less, three making an acceptable skirt) and joining them so as to become a single piece by stitching the selvages together.

The basis for your choice might be spiritual, practical or simply ease of construction. There are those schools of hula that adhere to the concept that to cut the skirt implies the cutting off one's hula progress. This school of thought always uses the entire length of fabric, turning down the excess at the waist to be a flap overhanging at the waist. This flap can be worn with the overhang on the outside like a peplum, or inside so that it can't be seen. This school of thought uses the selvage as the finish at the bottom of the skirt. They do not sew a hem at the bottom. To hem the skirt, in this school of thought, implies the sealing off, or cessation of a continuing learning process.

In our traditions we only use this spiritual concept for a skirt made for the ceremonial 'uniki rites. All other practice, or general performance skirts, we construct using joined pieces. This choice is based on the obvious savings in fabric involved by using every inch of the fabric for our costumes. The single length method wastes a lot of yardage. While it takes a bit more sewing to piece the skirt together, when sewing for a large group, the savings more than compensates for the additional work. So the choice is yours.One additional tradition, five layers is mentioned in some early descriptions of the ceremonial pa'u. So there is a slight preference for making the pa'u in a five-yard width. Our traditions always use five yards for ceremonial attire. A "practice skirt" may vary in width. 

Pa'u Skirt - using single length of fabric with a single cord at the waist:

(a) Determine the length of the finished skirt. I like my pa'u skirt to strike the dancer midway between the ankle and the knee. Some like it longer, some like it shorter.If you are using the uncut length of fabric, you will need to add one inch to the desired finished length of the skirt to allow for the sewing of the casing for a single cord. Add an additional inch for each 1.

(b)Seam the raw edges on the sides of the skirt/b> by turning under 1/4 inch and stitching (wrong sides together), then turn 1/2 inch again and stitching for the final side hems.

(c) The entire length of the yardage of the fabric to be used must be measured to the desired length, then pressed and pinned before sewing the casing for the cordage at the waist.

(d) Now, run a seam 1/4 inch (wrong sides together - right sides facing out) along the top edge of the turned down casing (topstitching). This helps to prevent the casing from rolling when you are wearing it. (d) Next, run a seam 1-inch below the turned down edge (wrong sides together) for your casing. This gives a 3/4 casing for your cord. For additional cords, run a row of stitching the width of the skirt 1/4 inch below the bottom row of the casing just stitched. Then stitch a 3/4-inch row the width of the skirt for a casing below that. Repeat for the desired number of casings. This results in 3/4-inch casings with 1/4 inch between the rows of casings. Giving the double row of stitches between the casings helps the waistband to lay flat. Other styles put several inches between the casings. It's a matter of preference.


(e) String your cording through the casing and you are finished. The cording can be a braided length of the same fabric as your skirt, a stitched piece made from the same or some other fabric, a length of bias tape stitched to prevent raveling, or some other cordage that suits you.


(f) Insert the cordage through the casing or casings, gather the fabric on the cord, and tie at the waist - the open side of the skirt being worn on the left. 

Pa'u Skirt -with a single cord using 3 to 5 panels of fabric:

(1) Using the method of cutting several panels of fabric for your pa'u skirt, you must determine the desired length of your skirt and how full you want the skirt to be - three widths, four widths or five widths. This will determine how many sections you cut for each skirt. I have used three panels for children, but I generally use five panels for teens and adults. This is a matter of personal preference and economy. To determine the length to cut, decide on your finished length and add 2-inches for the casing and 1-inch for the hem. (I like mine mid-calf) 
If multiple rows of cording are desired, add one additional inch for each additional row of casing. If space is desired between the rows of casing, include an allowance for those measurements as well. 


(2) Stitch the panels together joining at the selvage edge. 


(3) Stitch raw side seams by turning down 1/4-inch and stitching (wrong sides together), then 1/2-inch for the final side hem. 


(4) Seam the hem of the skirt in the same way, turning up 1/4 inch and stitching (wrong sides together), then turn up 3/4 inch and stitch to complete the bottom hem. 


(5) Turn down the upper edge of the fabric 1/4 inch and top stitch the entire width of the fabric (wrong sides together). 


(6) Turn down the stitched upper-edge 1-inch for a single casing (one additional inch for each additional row of casing desired), and stitch the length of the fabric for the casing. 


(7) Top-stitch the upper-edge of the casing 1/4-inch. This gives a nice finish to the skirt and prevents the waist from rolling during wearing. 
These two methods produce a pa'u skirt with a single casing for one cord. If multiple casings are desired, add one inch to length of the skirt for each additional cord. Run two rows of stitches 1/4 inch apart between the bands of cords to separate the casings. If you want several inches between the casings, determine the measurements and plan accordingly. 
Instruction for the method of construction using elastic, rather than cording, for fastening: 


(1) Construct the skirt in either of the methods we discussed in prior issues: using panels of fabric sewn together, or a single length of fabric. Complete the skirt exactly as directed with two exceptions. 

(a) Sew the joined sections together at the selvage edge but leaving the casing portion at the waist open by running the stitch only part way to the top edge. This joins the panels together to complete the circle to make a single length of fabric with the exception of the unstitched area of the casing. Create your casing as before, turning down 1 inch for single elastic, 2-inch for double rows of elastic, etc. This allows you to create the casing, inset the elastic and sew it all together at one time. 
The advantage to this is that the skirt will last longer than the elastic, and the elastic WILL have to be replaced over time. This method allows you to merely take up that portion of the side seam where the casing is, replace the elastic (by sewing the new piece to the old, then pulling the old out and the new in at the same time!!!!), and stitch the seam closed and the elastic together. Hint: Secure the elastic you are pulling through to the fabric so you don't end up pulling it into the casing. It's a real bummer to have to pull it out and start over because you lost the end inside several yards of casing! 


(2) Sew in your hem last.

My final thoughts to share are on the choice of pattern for the skirt. I find almost any choice to be acceptable for a practice or performance pa'u. The native hula dancers started using fabric for their pa'u skirts as soon as woven fabrics became available in the islands. The advantages that fabric can offer are obvious - fabric is long lasting, washable, and laborsaving as compared to kapa. Small floral prints and stripes were what were available during that era. Of course they had the choice of solid colors, which were utilized also. I'm sure if they had been given the wide choice of patterns available to us today, they would have embraced them eagerly as well.

For ceremonial pa'u, our hâlau uses solid color fabric and we print them in the traditional way with the core of the dried hala fruit and hand squeezed oil of the kuku'i and burned ash as our ink.

How to make your Pa'upa'u ...Pa'u Top

My kumu hula, Lani Kalama, called the complete outfit of the hula dancer (skirt and "sack") pa'upa'u. Here are the instructions for making the traditional hula top, or "sack", to wear under your pa'u skirt.

Making your own hula top or "sack"

You'll need a length of fabric that reaches from your underarms to below mid-calf plus enough additional fabric for the hem and the elastic casing. This would be 2 inches additional for a single row of elastic at the underarm. Fuller breasted dancers find a double row of elastic more satisfactory, to do this add 3 inches to the length of the fabric. The width of the fabric depends on the girth of the dancer. Very petite ladies and children need only the 45 inches that is the common width of most fabrics to adequately complete the circumference of their hula top. Others will need one and one-half the width of the fabric, and there are those of us who will need two full widths of the fabric to comfortably accommodate our bodies. After cutting your fabric according to your length and width, assemble in this way.

1. If you are using one width of fabric, join the selvage edges, right sides together. If you are using 1 &1/2 widths of fabric, sew the raw edge and the selvage edge together to make a circle. If you are using two complete widths, sew the selvage edges together.

2. Make your casing at the top edge by turning under 1/4 inch (wrong side together) and stitching. Then turn down 1 inch of fabric and stitch (wrong side together) to create a garment with a single casing. If you want two rows of elastic, turn down 2 inches. Run a double row of stitches about 1/4 inch apart between the rows of elastic. This helps the garment lie smoothly when you wear it.

3. Sew the casing seam closed (right sides together).

4. Top stitch the upper edge of the casing so that it lies flat when it's worn.

5. Sew the side seams (wrong sides together) leaving a few inches so that your stitched row of casing is not yet closed. (Or rows of casing as the case may be.) This allows you to insert the elastic, and close the seam and sew the elastic at the same time. This makes it easy to replace the elastic, which will go dead in time. Just take open the small side seam, sew new elastic to the old and pull it through and re-stitch the casing closed.

6. Hem the bottom by turning up 1/4 inch and stitching, then turning up 3/4 for the finish. 
Happy sewing and E Hula Mau (keep on dancing)! 

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