Story: Māori weaving and tukutuku – te raranga me te whatu

Page 3. Tāniko and tukutuku

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A unique weaving tradition

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.

Tāniko designs

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:

  • nihotaniwha (dragon's teeth), a large triangle
  • nihoniho (little teeth), a series of small triangles
  • waharua (double mouth), a diamond-shaped outline
  • kaokao (armpits), shaped like a W or M.

Using tāniko

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.

Using tukutuku

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 kiekiewhich is bleached white, or dyed black much as muka is dyed for weaving.

Tukutuku at the UN

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.

Tukutuku designs

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).

Modern tukutuku

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.

How to cite this page:

Kahutoi Te Kanawa, 'Māori weaving and tukutuku – te raranga me te whatu - Tāniko and tukutuku', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 April 2024)

Story by Kahutoi Te Kanawa, published 22 Oct 2014