When the East Polynesian ancestors of the Māori people came to New Zealand, they found a colder climate than the tropical one they had left behind. They brought a range of cord-making, knotting, netting and weaving skills with them. They also brought familiar plants they hoped to grow, including aute (paper mulberry), commonly used to make bark-cloth garments in the tropics.
However, aute did not grow well in New Zealand, and bark cloth was unsuitable for the temperate climate. Nonetheless aute retained an important place in the cultural memory and some chiefs still wore small pieces as ear adornment in the 18th century.
The closest endemic species to aute was the houhi, whauwhi, or houhere (regional names for ribbonwood or lacebark). It was probably used in early attempts to make bark cloth, but eventually long thin strips of inner bark were used in some regions to make flexible skirts or capes.
For most clothing purposes the new settlers adapted their existing technologies to semi-familiar plants with leaves that could be used in the same ways as tropical palms. Leaves were split into strips to be plaited, or mussel shells were used to strip out the fibre – these strong fibres were called muka or whītau according to the region. These plants included the harakeke (New Zealand flax), kiekie (a climbing vine), tī kōuka or whanake (cabbage trees), tōī (mountain cabbage tree), pīngao (golden sand sedge), wharawhara, kōwharawhara (Astelia species) and various grasses. Some supplied fibre, others were used for plaiting or interweaving, and some for both; but the variety of harakeke species became the primary choice.
Wearing the weka
A remnant of a stitched weka-skin garment was found at a schist cave burial site on the Strath Taieri Plain in 1881. Seams stitched with muka fibre are proof of a well-established practice probably dating back to the 13th century, as evidenced by bone needles and awls found at the Wairau Bar archaeological site. The seams have a form of knotted blanket stitch that has the advantage of not slipping or loosening during the sewing process. These skins offer evidence of how other bird skins may have been joined for use.
The discovery of a plentiful supply of large flightless birds must have been a huge bonus when Polynesians first arrived. Around 10 species of moa were hunted. The moa hunters were unlikely to have wasted the birds’ large feathered skins when needing garments for winter weather. A thin sliver of moa skin was discovered covering a seam on a remnant of weka cloak made long after moa had disappeared.
When moa became extinct it is likely that smaller ground birds such as kiwi, weka and kākāpō increased in importance as sources for food and clothing. Skins of all three species were sewn to make cloaks. Sometimes strips of skins were attached to warp yarns (the vertical threads) in early forms of woven textiles. Traditional stories tell of maro (frontal aprons) of red kākā feathers. In the late 18th century women were observed wearing maro made of bird skins.
Surrounded by water, New Zealand was rich in sea life. Kahu kekeno (sealskin cloaks) featured in stories, but had disappeared by the time of James Cook’s voyages in the late 1700s. A range of kahu kurī (dog-skin cloaks) had become the most prestigious garments by the later half of the 18th century. Some consisted of entire pelts stitched together. For others, rows of strips of skin were overlaid and attached to a firmly woven fibre base. This technique allowed the development of a variety of designs.