Taonga such as kākahu (cloaks or garments) connect to the spiritual world through the whakapapa of the natural materials from which they are woven, the values and ancestral knowledge and practices. According to Ngāti Awa elder Hāmiora Pio, the knowledge of weaving began with Hine-rauamoa, the wife of Tāne-nui-a-rangi.
Aitia te wahine i roto i te pā harakeke.
Marry the woman found in the flax bush.
This whakataukī (saying) illustrates how important a weaver was to her community in the past. From birth, a girl of aristocratic lineage was initiated into the arts of Hine-rauamoa.
Muka, the inner fibre extracted from the long, sword-like leaves of the harakeke (New Zealand flax), is the preferred customary fibre for cloak weaving. Careful observation of protocols and rituals protected the mauri (life force) of the plants and material harvested for weaving, and the mauri of the weaver herself.
A well-known weaver gave mana to taonga (ancestral treasures) they created through their own personal skills and knowledge. Mastery of weaving involves many skills, from making baskets, cords and mats to fine cloaks, using processes and techniques developed over many generations. The most prized items were carefully and beautifully made for important people. These taonga increase in cultural value with each passing generation.
Māori cloaks were woven by hand, without the use of a loom. Whatu, the finger weft twining technique used for making fish nets and traps, was adapted to construct garments. Closely packed wefts create a firm textile, while more widely spaced wefts give a more pliant product. Decorative tāniko borders use a similar method and are a uniquely Māori invention.
Passing on the arts of weaving
Traditionally, weaving was taught within families, usually by a mother, aunt or grandmother. Strict protocols and restrictions were part of the discipline of maintaining the integrity of this knowledge. This art was in serious decline until the 1950s, when moves were made through education programmes and national bodies such as the Māori Women’s Welfare League to preserve and maintain weaving and highlight the need to protect the natural resources vital for weaving.
In 1983 Ngoingoi Pēwhairangi called the first national hui for Māori and Pacific weavers at Tokomaru Bay. The Aotearoa Te Moananui a Kiwa weavers group was formed, amalgamating Māori and Pacific weavers. Later the Māori national weavers’ collective Te Roopu Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa was established. In the 2000s Māori weaving is a highly visible and innovative art form that has influenced many contemporary forms of Māori expression.