Years before the establishment of major hand-loom weaving guilds in New Zealand, two sisters, Sybil Mary and Josephine Mulvany, were operating a successful weaving business in Auckland. They helped revitalise the craft of fine fabric weaving in New Zealand.
Sybil and Josephine were the daughters of Mary Reilly and her husband, Thomas John Mulvany; both parents had private means. Sybil was born on 7 May 1899, Josephine on 6 March 1901. Their only sibling was an elder sister, Aileen. All three children were born in Parnell, Auckland, and after a year spent in Masterton, the family returned and settled at Takapuna, on the North Shore, in 1903. From 1908 the sisters spent some of their time at Nihotupu, in the Waitakere Ranges, where their mother had purchased land and built a house.
On 4 October 1909, Aileen, Sybil and Josephine were among the first pupils enrolled at Baradene College of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic school for girls. They continued to board at the school after their mother's death from cancer in 1912; she had left money to ensure that they completed their education. Thomas Mulvany died in 1919, three years after remarrying, leaving family property in trust to his three daughters. After leaving school Sybil found employment with a leading Auckland photographic firm, Bartlett's Studio, and Josephine began training as a nurse, but was forced to abandon this career for health reasons.
On 13 April 1926 Sybil and Josephine left Auckland for the United Kingdom. In London they took rooms in Highgate, where they reportedly met K. Grasett, principal of the London School of Weaving, who may have encouraged them to study at the school. The prospect of acquiring skills they could turn to economic advantage probably appealed to them. Before commencing their three-month course, Sybil and Josephine purchased a new Renault open tourer and explored a large part of England and Europe.
The Mulvany sisters began training at the London School of Weaving in April 1927. They acquitted themselves extremely well, graduating with diplomas acknowledging their technical expertise and superb colour sense. Before their return to New Zealand they purchased looms, spinning wheels, threads and other equipment with which to set up a business.
Sybil and Josephine Mulvany began work under the trade name Taniko Weavers, at Newmarket, Auckland, in 1928. The firm was identified by a distinctive circular design depicting a gull flying over Auckland harbour, a shuttle suspended from a thread held in its beak. The name Taniko was adopted in reference to New Zealand's indigenous weaving heritage, although the sisters' work displayed no Maori influences.
In October 1929 the Mulvanys moved to larger premises one block from Queen Street. The shop had two levels, with a workshop space on the second floor holding up to six looms. The lower floor was the shop and display area. A small loom was used by whoever was minding the store to weave stock and to attract curious passers-by. Weaving assistants were employed by the Mulvany sisters to meet the demands of their growing business. Betty Crombie was employed from late 1929 and remained with the firm six years; Zoe Pabst worked with the sisters for two years in the early 1930s.
A range of fashion goods were made, including dress-fabric lengths in linen and tweed, skirts, dresses and suits, scarves, ties and hand-bags. Household linen included tablecloths, serviettes, curtains, runners, cushions, pram covers, towels, bedspreads, tea towels and rugs. The sisters were well aware of overseas trends and this was reflected in their products. They also made religious items, including altar cloths and purificators, and sold imported weaving supplies such as spinning wheels, looms and yarns. The teaching of weaving was another side to the business.
Late in 1932 Josephine Mulvany established a branch of Taniko Weavers in Wellington, but within 18 months it had closed, its demise apparently precipitated by the actions of a dishonest accountant. Possibly as a further consequence, during this period Taniko Weavers in Auckland moved to a smaller second-floor studio in the Strand Arcade, off Queen Street. Notwithstanding these setbacks, at the 1933 Spring Exhibition of the Auckland Society of Arts, the sisters were jointly awarded the Kohn medal for the best exhibit in the craft and applied art category.
The Mulvanys saw themselves as part of the European-inspired handcraft revival and were keen to publicise their work. Sybil demonstrated weaving in the window of George Court and Sons' department store, and under the pseudonym 'Taniko' the sisters published a series of articles on weaving. These encouraged the financial independence of women through the marketing of their traditional domestic talents.
On 3 July 1935 Sybil Mulvany married Selwyn Harding Wright, an engineer, at St John's Church, Parnell. She sold her interest in the business to Josephine, who carried on alone for another seven months. Josephine married William Charles Daniel Glasgow, at St Benedict's Church, Auckland, on 12 September 1936; Taniko Loom-Craft Weavers had closed its doors on 31 January. After their marriages, Sybil and Josephine were active in many fields, but neither of them took so public a role again.
Sybil Wright continued to weave, working on competition and exhibition pieces, as well as commissions, the most significant of which was an order for soft furnishings for the residence of Bishop J. M. Liston. Weaving took its toll on her dexterity and eyesight and in later years she turned to ceramics for her creative expression. She died on 28 March 1983 at Whangarei, survived by her husband and a son.
Josephine Glasgow moved to Christchurch, where she wove professionally for a few years from her home while raising two daughters. In the 1950s, when the family moved to the seaside suburb of Sumner, Josephine indulged her enjoyment of gardening, and the prospect of damage to the delicate pads of her fingers forced her to choose between her two loves. Her looms and vast stores of thread lay idle for the rest of her life. She died on 6 October 1967 at Christchurch; her husband and daughters survived her.
The development of hand weaving in New Zealand owes much to a chance meeting in the 1940s between Josephine Glasgow and Florence Akins, a young crafts and design teacher at the Canterbury University College School of Art. When asked to extend the curriculum by establishing a weaving class (the first in the country), Akins was relieved to learn that an expert weaver lived nearby. Josephine Glasgow agreed to teach Akins and her lessons formed the model of those given to Canterbury art students. The weaving course at the school of art ended with the retirement of Florence Akins in 1969, but not before many young weavers had acquired a strong technical background from which they could work to develop a local weaving tradition.