Aitia te wahine i roto i te pā harakeke.
Marry the woman found in the flax plantation.
This whakataukī (proverb) indicates the central importance of weaving and related crafts such as tukutuku in Māori society. The pā harakeke is a stand of flax, either specially cultivated or naturally occurring, which is cropped sustainably by weavers to provide the basic material for their work.
When the ancestors of modern Māori migrated to New Zealand from other Polynesian islands, they arrived in a land with a much cooler climate, and were forced to develop a number of cultural innovations. Warm clothing was needed, but the aute (paper mulberry), the plant used to make tapa-cloth garments elsewhere in the South Pacific, did not thrive in their new home.
In place of aute, early Māori developed a method of producing fine thread from muka (fibre), from which they wove garments and other items of extraordinary beauty.
Harakeke (Phormium spp., New Zealand flax, although in fact of the lily family and not botanically related to the European flax plant) was the main substitute for aute. It assumed enormous importance for its abundance and suitability for plaiting, weaving and other fibre techniques. Other plants used for weaving include kiekie, pīngao, kākaho (toetoe stems) and many more.
Harakeke (New Zealand flax) is found throughout the country, is strong and versatile, and has always been the most widely used plant material for traditional weaving. Over time, weavers selected and grew varieties with specific properties, such as extra white or glossy muka (fibre). These might be exchanged with tribes in other regions. Some of the names given to different varieties include pari-taniwha, oue, rātāroa, ngutu-nui, awanga, tāneāwai, ruatapu, tukura, rongotainui, motuoruhi and mangaeka.
The two main varieties of flax are harakeke (Phormium tenax) and wharariki (Phormium cookianum), which has softer leaves, prized for use in more delicate work. There are many identified sub-species, each with its own weaving properties and recognised uses.
Leaves (rau) for weaving were carefully cut from the flax bushes to ensure that te rito (the centre shoot) was not harmed. Several Māori proverbs liken the flax bush to a human family, which survives by protecting its weakest members.
Each leaf was then stripped by hand to remove the edges and midrib, leaving even widths of the rau (harakeke leaf). An incision was made on the dull side of the harakeke, often using the straight edge of a shell to extract the muka. For use in soft, comfortable garments, the muka was thoroughly washed and beaten with a patu muka or patu whītau (stone pounder). Groups of individual fibres were carefully miro (hand-rolled), often against the leg, to produce the whenu (warp threads) and aho (weft threads). The aho was much smaller in width – about a sixth of the size of the whenu. The aho did not have to go through the patu process.
Weaving threads were traditionally dyed yellow, red-brown and black, with the natural colour of undyed fibre providing a fourth colour. The bark of trees such as the raurekau (Coprosma grandifolia) produced yellow dye. The tānekaha (Phyllocladus trichomanoides) produced a reddish colour, and when mixed with hot wood ashes produced a brown. To dye muka black, the bark of a plant such as the makomako (Aristotelia serrata) or hīnau (Elaeocarpus dentatus) was first steeped in water. The muka was soaked in this liquid, then dried and rubbed in a special paru (mud) found in swamps.
Traditionally, a novice weaver was taught in a special building called te whare pora (the house of weaving). This instruction was given under strict conditions and with a great deal of ceremony. The novice was first made ready to receive knowledge of the arts of weaving through karakia (prayers) and initiation ceremonies. The karakia endowed the student with a receptive mind and retentive memory. Initiated weavers became dedicated to the pursuit of a complete knowledge of weaving, including the spiritual concepts. The practice was discouraged by 19th-century missionaries, and very few weavers in the present day experience this initiation ceremony.
Weaving was mainly, although not exclusively, practised by women. The principal goddess of te whare pora is Hineteiwaiwa, who represents the arts pursued by women and is also the goddess of childbirth.
Māori did not use weaving technology such as looms and spinning wheels. Instead, weavers developed a system of finger weaving that produced elaborate and beautiful geometric patterns.
Whatu aho rua and whatu aho pātahi are the weaving techniques known as the ‘cloak weave’, used to produce fabric. Traditionally, a piece of weaving such as a cloak was begun by stretching a cord between two turuturu (weaving pegs), which were either stuck in the ground or leaned against a wall. From this cord the whenu (warp threads) hung downwards and the finer aho (weft threads) ran horizontally between the whenu from left to right. Different colours of aho threads produced coloured patterns known as tāniko. As the work progressed it was hung over a second pair of pegs to keep it off the ground.
The tradition of making cloaks to mark special occasions, or as gifts for distinguished people, continues in modern times. These cloaks are sometimes made to be worn by non-Māori as well as Māori. Since 2004 the flagbearer for the New Zealand team at the Olympic Games has worn a cloak named Te Mahutonga (the Southern Cross). It was made over seven months by the outstanding weavers Te Aue Davis and Ranui Ngarimu, and named by the late Dame Te Atairangikaahu, the Māori Queen. Te Mahutonga includes kiwi, tīeke (saddleback), toroa (albatross) and kākāpō feathers.
The simplest form of whatu weaving, called whatu aho pātahi (single-pair twining), was used to make tough, practical garments such as rain capes. These then had strips or bundles of unwoven plant material attached to make them weatherproof.
More sophisticated garments were made with whatu aho rua (two-pair twining). This method produced magnificent kākahu (cloaks), worn by people of rank. Sydney Parkinson, an artist on James Cook’s 1769 expedition to New Zealand, observed of Māori that ‘their cloth is white, and glossy as silk, worked by hands and wrought as even as if it had been done in a loom, and is worn chiefly by the men, though it is made by women, who also carry burdens and do all the drudgery’.1
Kākahu were made in many styles, patterns and combinations of materials. They included:
A kākahu was often made with a slightly flared shape, to fit more comfortably and attractively around the wearer’s body. Many variations and additions to the basic technique were developed to finish the edges of a kākahu, make it suitable for special uses and enhance its beauty and durability.
A fine kākahu might take a skilled weaver several years to complete, so they were treasured garments. Kākahu could be used as a form of currency, in exchange for other prestigious items such as a war canoe, or for expert services such as tattooing.
As well as cloaks worn around the shoulders, Māori traditionally wore a skirt-like garment, called a rāpaki or pākē kārure, around the waist. This was superseded by the piupiu, a skirt-like garment which evolved after European contact. Women may sometimes have worn a maro (apron), covering the front of the lower body. These lower-body garments were generally not woven but instead made of free-hanging strands of material.
A garment made by Māori finger-weaving techniques was both elegant and functional, and its construction required the weaver to make a host of decisions about the materials, their treatment, technique and decoration. ‘Its main purpose could have been to provide shelter from the weather, to allow the wearer to pass unnoticed through bush or darkness, to give warmth, to acknowledge an important event, to acquire cooperation, to enable recognition, to proclaim status, to afford spiritual or physical protection in dangerous situations, to gain an advantage over an adversary, to seal an understanding, to trade, or any combination of these.’2
Tāniko is a method of decorative weaving used especially to decorate the borders of fine garments. The tāniko technique involves carrying behind the work threads not required for the pattern. As each colour is needed, it is brought to the front and wrapped around all the others. The tāniko weave is not used by other Polynesian groups, and is thought to have been developed by Māori some centuries ago. The meanings of some tāniko patterns have since been lost.
Māori weavers could not use curved designs, so their decorations consisted of triangles, diamonds, diagonal bars and stepped patterns. These designs were usually worked in black, red and white. The most common tāniko designs include:
Tāniko weaving produces a relatively stiff and unyielding fabric, so it was traditionally used as a decorative border on fine cloaks of the kaitaka and paepaeroa types. Often several different strips of tāniko appeared on up to three sides of a cloak.
From soon after European contact, wool, knitting silk and cotton were incorporated into tāniko along with muka fibre materials. The range of designs also expanded to include playing-card symbols, letters of the alphabet and other innovations. From the early 20th century tāniko was used to make bodices, armbands, headbands and bandoliers worn by members of Māori cultural groups. For a period from the 1950s, belts made from tāniko became fashionable for men.
Tukutuku or arapaki is a type of ornamental weaving using reed latticework rather than threads. It is used mainly to adorn the inside walls of wharenui (meeting houses). The tukutuku panels are placed between the carved wall slabs of the wharenui, and, like the carvings, convey a complex language of visual symbols.
Traditional tukutuku is made from kākaho (toetoe reeds) set vertically side by side, with kaho (horizontal wooden laths) lashed in front of them. The kaho are coloured red or black. On this framework coloured patterns are produced by thin strips of native grasses laced round both the kākaho and the kaho. The sedge commonly used is pīngao, a bright yellow sand sedge, and kiekie, which is bleached white, or dyed black much as muka is dyed for weaving.
The weaving collective Toihoukura contributed to a project to create 50 panels for the walls of the United Nations General Assembly building in New York. The project was coordinated by master weaver Christina Hurihia Wirihana, who headed a team of 40 other weavers. From 2010 they harvested kiekie from the Waitākere Ranges and pīngao from Gisborne and Rotoiti. Their tukutuku panels are a mix of contemporary images and interpretations of traditional patterns.
Each tukutuku design is named. A very common stepped design is named poutama, referring to education, progress and ascension. A whole panel covered with white crosses is called purapurawhetū (star seeds). Vertical bands of white crosses are known as roimata (tears). A diamond motif is called pātiki (flounder).
As with tāniko, new tukutuku designs and materials have been introduced since European contact. The meeting house Porourangi, at Waiōmatatini on the East Coast, was built in the 1870s. Its tukutuku panels were among the first to depict human figures. Other innovations include motifs such as stars, fern leaves and alphabet letters. New materials such as half-round wooden slats, pegboard, kangaroo hide and raffia have made tukutuku work more accessible to beginners, albeit with a loss of traditional practices and customs.
As well as clothing and decorative panels, Māori made a large range of practical objects such as floor mats, kete (baskets), fishing nets and eel traps, using both weaving and knotting techniques.
Many of these objects were produced by a plaiting technique called whāriki. Unlike weaving, in which the warp and weft threads cross at right angles, in whāriki and related techniques the strands cross diagonally.
The term ‘whāriki’ refers both to the plaiting technique and the mats made from it. Floor mats were of great importance before European arrival, when even the largest and most distinguished carved houses had dirt floors. Several types of whāriki were made, each with a special purpose. Coarse mats called whāriki and tūwhara were the basic floor covering. Finer sleeping mats called takapau and tīenga were spread over these. A particularly fine takapau might be woven for a high-born woman to give birth on. Coarse tāpaki mats were placed over food in a hāngi (earth oven), then covered with earth to retain the steam and heat. The same mat-weaving technique was once used to make the sails of seagoing canoes, but these, and the art of making them, disappeared once ocean transport ended several centuries ago.
Whāriki are still produced in the 2000s, especially for use in wharenui (meeting houses). They are frequently placed beneath a coffin during a tangihanga (funeral) as a mark of respect to the deceased.
Raranga is a related weaving style used to make rourou (food baskets), kete (bags) and other small objects once vital to traditional Māori society. Rourou were often the first production of a novice weaver. They were made of untreated flax and were used only once and then discarded, for reasons of hygiene. The introduction of crockery made rourou less necessary, but they are still seen today in many marae dining halls.
Traditional Māori garments did not have pockets, so baskets of many sizes and shapes took their place. They were sometimes made from tī kōuka or whanake (cabbage tree), or nīkau palm, but harakeke (flax) was the most common material. Special small kete, called pūtea, were filled with fragrant plants and given as gifts. Traditionally, the most beautiful basket (kete whakairo) was woven by a skilled weaver expecting her first child. A special chant was used to invoke the help of the atua (gods).
Whiri refers to the technique of braiding used to make strips of material such as waist girdles, headbands and tātua (belts). This method could produce very long and tough straps of undressed flax, once used by Māori in place of ropes, to carry food and firewood.
A French visitor to the Bay of Islands in 1772 commented on Māori fishing equipment. ‘Their fishing-lines, as well as their nets of every description, are knotted with the same adroitness as those of the cleverest fishermen of our seaports.’ Fifty years later, trader Joel Polack confirmed that ‘[t]heir fishing lines are infinitely stronger, and fitted to bear a heavier strain, than any made from European materials. The method of making up fishing lines is very tedious. The manufacturer twists it upon his thighs and rolls the flax with the palm of his hand, to which he constantly applies his saliva.’ 1
A related craft was the making of kupenga (fishing nets) and other fishing gear. Men as well as women worked together to make large nets. An entire village might join forces to make a giant net known as a kaharoa, up to 2 kilometres long. The mesh was finer in the middle than at the ends, to give the net strength to hold a massive catch. Māori also produced a range of smaller nets, such as dragnets and funnel-shaped hoop nets, with a rim made from supplejack vines.
Crayfish pots were made from a frame of supplejack and a lattice of thin mānuka rods tied with green flax. Hīnaki were eel traps, which could be used to keep eels alive underwater until they were needed for eating. Bird cages and bird traps were also skilfully made, often using materials such as mangemange and kiekie, found in the bush near the nesting places of the birds themselves.
Cloak-making and other fibre arts were practised less frequently from the early 20th century. The introduction of European clothing and other new materials, the increasing scarcity of certain traditional materials such as native bird feathers, and discouragement by the missionaries of whare pora (house of weaving) traditions all contributed to this decline.
A number of dedicated women sustained the weaving arts and passed them on to younger female relatives. Perhaps the most significant was Diggeress Te Kanawa (of Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Kinohaku), the daughter of another renowned weaver, Dame Rangimarie Hetet. Te Kanawa took part in hui in the 1950s hosted by the Maori Women’s Welfare League to promote whāriki-making and other weaving traditions. For the next 50 years she remained at the forefront of the promotion and revival of Māori weaving. Te Kanawa was a founding member of Aotearoa Moananui a Kiwa Weavers, later Te Roopu Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa, the National Māori Weavers Collective of New Zealand. She received many awards for her work, including a CNZM in 2000 and an honorary doctorate in 2007.
A sustained revival of weaving traditions began in 1969, when a national weaving school, Te Rito, was established at Rotorua, alongside the existing national carving school. The first head of Te Rito was Emily Schuster. Te Rito trains students in the art and skills of traditional weaving either through a full-time three-year course, or in part-time community-based courses. Students are taught the skills of the art form, the traditions and tikanga (protocols) and the stories and designs unique to each iwi. Traditional Māori weaving is also taught in tertiary and other educational institutions.
In 2004 a major exhibition of traditional fibre arts, The Eternal Thread – Te Aho Mutunga Kore, opened at Pataka museum in Porirua. It toured to other regional museums before being exhibited in San Francisco in 2005. Following a three-year tour of the United States, ‘The eternal thread’ returned in 2007 for a final showing at the Christchurch Art Gallery – Te Puna o Waiwhetū, attracting 81,000 visitors.
To support the nationwide revival of fibre arts, many new pā harakeke (stands of flax for weaving) have been established by marae, local authorities and other bodies. A Christchurch park, Janet Stewart Reserve, incorporates an extensive pā harakeke named Te Kōrari as a taonga (treasure) for the Christchurch weaving community. Christchurch City Council worked closely with a group of local weavers to develop this pā harakeke.
In the 21st century Māori weavers maintain the use of traditional materials, dyes, patterns and techniques, but many are also willing to adapt and reinterpret them. Newer materials such as corn husks, wool and the feathers of introduced birds are now incorporated into woven articles. However, pride of place in matters of Māori etiquette is still given to traditional woven products. The kaitiaki (guardians) of tikanga (customs) associated with weaving uphold these traditions as they apply them through the processes of making.
Evans, Miriama, and Ranui Ngarimu. The art of Māori weaving: the eternal thread: te aho mutunga kore. Wellington: Huia, 2005.
Prendergast, Mick. Te aho tapu: The sacred thread. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1987.
Puketapu-Hetet, Erenora. Maori weaving. Auckland: Pitman, 1989.
Tamati-Quennell, Megan, ed. Pu manawa: A celebration of whatu, raranga and tāniko. Wellington: Museum of New Zealand, 1993.
Tamarapa, Awhina. Whatu kākahu: Māori cloaks. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2011.