Skip to main content
Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Related Images

Maori Uses

When the Maoris came to New Zealand, they brought with them the paper mulberry plant from which they made bark cloth for clothing. The paper mulberry did not flourish and a substitute material was found in the native flax. As Captain Cook wrote: “Of the leaves of these plants, with very little preparation, they (the Maoris) make all their common apparel; and of these they make also their strings, lines and cordage …”. They also made baskets, mats, and fishing nets from the undressed flax.

Fibre was obtained from the leaves by stripping with the sharp edge of a mussel shell the lower surface of the leaf from the upper. The remaining upper surface was then scraped with the shell, washed, and scraped again in running water, spread out to dry, and finally worked and twisted for the purpose required. Lines, cordage, and superior garments were made from the phormium fibre.

The Maori recognised over 60 varieties of flax, and certain ones were used for definite purposes, for example:

korako: a dark green leaf with dark brown edge and flowers with pale yellow keel, was used for best garments in Taranaki.

tapoto: leaves narrow, erect, with deep purple margin; strong lustrous fibre used for sewing threads or weft of fine mats in Taranaki, East Coast, and Hawke's Bay.

mataroa: a short fibre used for borders of fine mats in the Wanganui River district.

ate: a strong fibre used for eel nets and baskets–Wanganui.

kauhangaroa: used only for baskets and matting – Hawke's Bay

ngaro: bluish green leaf, black edge – best of all kinds for all purposes (Raglan), used for rough garments (Taranaki); stiff fibre (West Coast).

The skill of the Maori flax-dressers was known to the early European traders who obtained fibre in exchange for iron nails and axes. At the request of Governor King of Norfolk Island, two Maoris were taken to the island in 1793 in order to show the Europeans how to prepare fibre from Phormium tenax growing there. In 1794, at Thames, Maoris made flax ropes to replace the running-rigging on the brig Fancy, and the same thing was done for the sailing ship Matilda which anchored in Otago Harbour in 1813.

As soon as the Maoris saw the value of muskets, firearms became the principal article of barter for flax. One ton of phormium fibre was demanded by the European traders for one or two muskets. Inland tribes, unable to barter flax at the ports, would exchange slaves for muskets with tribes already in possession of firearms; three to five slaves for a musket, the slaves being of value as flax-dressers. The need for large quantities of fibre, together with the fact that hilltop pas were unsatisfactory fortifications against muskets, resulted in the Maoris going to live on low-lying swamps where flax grew. This change of residence and the neglect of food cultivation proved detrimental to their health.