Rangimārie Hursthouse was born on 24 May 1892 at Oparure, near Te Kūiti. Her parents were Charles Wilson Hursthouse and Mere Te Rongopāmamao Aubrey. Charles Hursthouse had emigrated with his family from England in 1843. Te Rongopāmamao had an English father, and her mother, Ingoingo (also known as Mākereta Pēpene Poharama), belonged to Ngāti Kinohaku, a hapū of Ngāti Maniapoto. Both parents had had previous relationships: Rangimārie was the youngest half-sister to four siblings on her mother’s side and had seven siblings by her father’s marriage. Her tall and fair appearance indicated her mostly European ancestry.
Because of her father’s work as a surveyor and engineer for the main trunk railway and the preference of her mother to remain living with her family at Oparure, Rangimārie grew up among Ngāti Kinohaku. Her father would occasionally visit. In 1899 Hursthouse instructed that Rangimārie be sent to live with a European family at nearby Paemako, where she commenced her schooling. She found the environment very foreign and was unhappy. Less than a year later she was sent to Kāwhia to live with an elder sister, and to attend school. Returning to her mother’s care after suffering a broken arm as a nine-year-old, Rangimārie continued her education at Te Kūiti Native School and later at Oparure Native School, where she was a founding pupil. She lived among an extended family and learnt many crafts, in particular the art of traditional Māori weaving.
On 16 February 1911, at Oparure, Rangimārie married Tūheka Taonui Hetet, a carpenter. Tūheka was the grandson of Louis Hetet, a trader of French descent, and Te Rangituatahi, a woman of noble rank within Ngāti Maniapoto. The couple had two children before Tūheka left to serve in the First World War in 1914. He spent almost five years in the army. After his return the couple had another three children, one of whom died in infancy.
The family lived and farmed at Oparure, before moving in 1924 to Rātana, where Tūheka assisted in the construction of the Rātana temple. They returned to Oparure about 1930. Tūheka suffered severe headaches and mood swings, which the family believed were the effects of gas poisoning during the war. He died suddenly in 1938.
Rangimārie spent the next 10 years working as a matron at the Pendennis Private Hotel in Wellington, as a domestic at Wesley College in Auckland, and as a cook in a military camp on Waiheke Island. On her return to Oparure she purchased a section in Te Kūiti, and some cows. Her eldest son, Wirihana (Bill), later built a house on her land and Rangimārie lived there for the remainder of her life.
With the establishment of the Māori Women’s Welfare League in 1951, Rangimārie joined as a founding member. She began teaching traditional Māori weaving to women within the community as well as in schools. She wanted to retain the traditional art form, which at that time was in jeopardy, and the league proved an ideal platform for its revival. She was later made a life member in recognition of her efforts.
Teaching soon progressed to demonstrations and eventually exhibitions. She participated in numerous local craft shows, sometimes exhibiting work other than weaving, including knitting, embroidery and crocheting. By the early 1960s Rangimārie had become known as a specialist in korowai (cloak) weaving. In her early 70s she received numerous invitations to exhibit nationally and internationally.
She first exhibited in 1965 at An Exhibition of Crafts at the Auckland Institute and Museum. In 1969 Rangimārie exhibited at the Waiwhetū marae, Lower Hutt, and in 1972, under the umbrella of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, her work was included in a collection that toured overseas. She held a joint exhibition with her daughter, Diggeress Te Kanawa, at the Waikato Art Museum in 1979. Also that year, her work was included in the publication Koru. She received a Bank of New Zealand Weaving Award in 1978 at a presentation held in conjunction with an exhibition at the Dowse Gallery, Lower Hutt.
In 1980 Rangimārie accepted an invitation to attend the South Pacific Festival of Arts in Papua New Guinea. The following year she exhibited work at the National Woolcrafts Festival, Dunedin, and the Feathers and Fibre exhibition at Rotorua Art Gallery. In 1982, as a result of the efforts of her family, Ōhākī Māori Village and Crafts Centre was opened at Waitomo, partly as a place for Rangimārie and Diggeress to pass on their knowledge of traditional weaving. She and Diggeress jointly won the Mediawomen Award for Women in 1982.
One of Rangimārie’s busiest years was 1984, when she exhibited work in the Māori Artists of the South Pacific show. This was followed by an exhibition at the prestigious Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, in 1985. In 1986, Rangimārie participated in an exhibition entitled Women and the Arts in New Zealand. As a centenarian she was made a life member of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. She also had work included in the Te Waka Toi contemporary collection, which toured the United States in 1992–93. She was represented in exhibitions at Te Taumata Art Gallery in Auckland and, in 1994, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
Rangimārie Hetet was made an MBE in 1973 and a CBE in 1984. She received the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand fellowship in 1974. In 1986 she was granted an honorary doctorate by the University of Waikato, and in 1992 she was made a DBE and received the Governor General’s Art Award from the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts.
When Rangimārie was not consumed by her craft, she played an active role in the five generations of her family. She was highly organised and self-determined, and all her offspring were well aware of her status, standards and expectations. Conservative by nature, Rangimārie maintained a balance of constant activity, stubborn independence, good diet and, as a consequence, good general health. She did, however, undergo an operation for a cataract about 1984. Failing eyesight and arthritis limited her ability to complete intricate weaving. But nothing could dull her passion; up until the day she died she continued to weave.
Rangimārie Hetet’s longevity meant that she outlived three of her children and some of her younger descendants. Nevertheless, at the time of her death at Te Kūiti on 14 June 1995, she was survived by over 100 direct descendants.