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Sewing, knitting and textile crafts

by Kerryn Pollock

For many women – and some men – involvement in home textile crafts has been an important part of life, whether as a social activity, a form of creative expression or a household necessity.

Home textile crafts

Women’s work

Women have been the primary producers of handcrafted textile items, although men have also turned their hands to this work (particularly knitting) at times. During the 19th century and much of the 20th century almost all women knew how to make clothes and household items, and this work was an important contribution to the family economy. These textile crafts were United Kingdom traditions imported to New Zealand when English and Scottish settlers arrived in the 19th century.

While knitting and sewing were commonplace household jobs, they did provide house-bound women with opportunities for creative expression. Many took pride in their ability to dress their children and themselves in well-made clothes. Less immediately practical crafts like embroidery were used to beautify a wide range of items, from handkerchiefs to tablecloths. Women of limited means could create pleasing home interiors using their needles and sewing machines. The craftwork of very skilled women had artistic qualities, though it was rarely seen as fine art because of its domestic origins.

Knitting rules

In 2002 Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Judith Tizard was heavily criticised by male opposition MPs for knitting while sitting at the Table of the House before the speaker, guiding a bill through a reading. Doing knitting was described as contemptible, arrogant and insulting. Tizard was a regular parliamentary knitter, doing so to relieve a hand numbness condition. The speaker ruled that knitting was permitted in the debating chamber, but should not be undertaken by a minister at the Table in charge of a bill.

Home-made to shop-bought

Historically, many women were unpaid housewives, and sewing, mending and knitting were regular jobs. In the last quarter of the 20th century women entered the paid workforce in large numbers and had less time to make things at home. Because knitting was portable and easy to do in conjunction with hands-free tasks and occupations, paid work did not necessarily put an end to knitting. Female politicians like Mabel Howard and Marilyn Waring knitted during caucus meetings and parliamentary debates.

The rise of the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s affected the way women perceived home crafts. They were seen by some as examples of women’s oppression – just more chores women were expected to do. This undoubtedly contributed to the decline of home crafts, but many women did continue to knit and sew, and some recast this work as a feminist act.

Perhaps more influential in turning women away from home-made everyday items was the rise of cheap, imported, commercially made clothes and soft furnishings. Tariffs (taxes on imported goods) which protected local industries were progressively lowered or removed altogether from the 1980s. In 1992 import licences for clothes were abolished, which meant anyone could import clothes. Before this, manufactured clothes were relatively expensive.

While imported clothing and textiles from most countries still attracted a modest tariff in the early 2000s, tariff reductions and low-waged labour abroad made them much cheaper to buy than make at home.


In the early 2000s women began to take up knitting, sewing and other textile crafts again in numbers. This was a worldwide trend evident in other comparable countries and was, in part, a reaction against mass-produced consumer items.

Craft groups and organisations

Sewing, knitting and other crafts could be solitary activities but sometimes women gathered to make things together. In 19th-century Waipū, Nova Scotian settlers met at ‘frolics’ with their wool, hand carders and spinning wheels and made yarn while conversing.

Organised craft groups emerged in the 20th century. The activities programmes of Country Women’s Institutes, an organisation founded in 1921, regularly included home-craft demonstrations and sessions, as did those of women’s lyceum clubs. Organisations devoted to particular crafts were also founded.

Home sewing

An essential skill

Hand sewing (‘needlework’) was an essential skill for early 19th-century women settlers. Settlers brought clothing, furnishings and other domestic items with them, but they still needed to be able to mend and make things anew. Haberdashery (sewing materials) like needles, thread and fabric were some of the staple items available at the Church Missionary Society store in Kerikeri, in the Bay of Islands, in the 1820s.

After 1840 women and men set up shop as dressmakers and tailors respectively but many people could not afford to have clothing made by professionals, and sewing remained a necessary skill for women and girls. While ready-to-wear men’s and young children’s clothing was available from shops, the intricate design and shaping of women’s clothing did not lend itself to mass production. Women unable to patronise dressmakers made their own.

By the 1920s contemporary women’s clothing was radically different to what was worn only 10 or 20 years before. It was simple and less structured and much easier to sew at home than the complicated garments of the recent past. This also lent itself to factory production, but commercially made garments were often more expensive than home-made.

This only changed in the 1980s, when tariffs on imports were first reduced. Clothing and other textile items became cheaper to buy than make. Sewing was no longer an essential skill, though many women continued to sew for interest’s sake. Along with other handcrafts, sewing experienced a modest revival in the early 2000s.

Boys’ work too?

One Canterbury teacher at work in the early 1900s thought boys as well as girls should learn needlework. She reported to a teachers’ association meeting in 1902 that: ‘I have at present on sewing day over thirty girls who are learning to sew.… I am teaching the upper Primer boys to sew in order to have one less class to attend to, and also, I must confess, in order to put into practice a favourite theory of mine – that boys should be taught to use their needle to a certain extent.’1

Learning to sew

Most girls were taught to sew by their mothers or women relations well into the late 20th century.

Outside the home, schools and training institutions were the main sites of sewing instruction. Though Māori sewing predated European settlement, Māori girls were taught to sew at missionary schools. The pupils at the Paihia school sewed the wedding dress of missionary Mary Ann Williams, which she wore when she married fellow missionary James Preece in 1833.

After school became compulsory in 1877 schoolgirls learned needlework. From 1899 all girls attending public primary schools with women teachers had to learn the subject.

At times boys were also taught to sew. At some schools in the 1970s girls and boys all studied sewing (along with cooking, metalwork and woodwork). This became more widespread in the 1980s.

From the late 19th century post-school-age women could hone their sewing skills at technical schools or private training institutions. While many went on to sew professionally, some would have applied this training at home, particularly after marriage.

Make do and mend

From the 19th century, people of limited means and frugal habits, women and men alike, mended worn or torn items by hand. Clothes were also unpicked and remade in up-to-date fashion. These practices were widespread during the economic depression of the 1930s, and the Second World War, developing into the habits of a lifetime for some who lived through these years.

Something for the curious

While sewing machines were in New Zealand in the mid-1850s they were rare and thus a novelty. In 1855 Thomas Chapman, a commission agent and proprietor of a circulating library, advertised that ‘The American Sewing Machine can now be seen by the curious, at the shop of GEO. T. CHAPMAN, Commission Agent, West Queen Street.’2

Sewing machines

Sewing by hand was a time-consuming business, so the arrival of sewing machines in New Zealand in the mid-1850s would have been a welcome development. They were more widely used in homes by the early 1880s. The earliest sewing machines were powered by a hand-propelled wheel on the side, but by the time sewing machines arrived in New Zealand foot-powered treadles were in use.

Electric machines were available from the 1920s and machines have since become increasingly sophisticated.

    • Quoted in Ruth Fry, It’s different for daughters: a history of the curriculum for girls in New Zealand schools, 1900-1975. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1985, p. 20. Back
    • Daily Southern Cross, 6 July 1855, p. 2. Back

Knitting, spinning and weaving

Early knitters and spinners

Missionary women were the first knitters in New Zealand. While women were the main knitters, working-class men also knitted. Edward Ward noted in his diary that steerage passenger Robert Wilson knitted during the voyage to New Zealand alongside his wife Margaret.

Boys as well as girls from Scottish families learned the craft, and immigrants from the Shetland Islands were particularly well known for their knitting, which was an important source of income alongside fishing back home.

Socks, stockings, shawls, mufflers and baby clothes were the main items knitted in the early 19th century. Table linen and trimmings knitted from cotton yarn were a cheap substitute for lace. Even curtains and bed counterpanes were knitted.

Some settlers brought spinning wheels with them to New Zealand and new ones were built on arrival. People with spinning wheels were able to make their own yarn from sheep’s wool.

The origin of the jersey

Jerseys started out as undergarments for naval and military men. Sailors and whalers wore jerseys called guernseys to protect them from salt water. G. B. Earp’s Hand-book for intending emigrants to the southern settlement of New Zealand (1849) advised labouring men to bring two guernseys with them. Women and gentlemen were not similarly advised.

Knitted outer garments

Commercial knitting patterns for outer garments – sports jerseys for men and boys – were available from around 1895. Before this, patterns for knitted children’s sailor suits and the occasional adult vest or cardigan were published, but most were for undergarments, shawls and baby clothes. Jerseys soon made the leap from sports to everyday wear for men and by the First World War were accepted as women’s wear too – women now knitted jerseys and cardigans for themselves.

First World War knitting and spinning

During the First World War, women were urged to knit items such as socks, balaclavas, gloves and facecloths for New Zealand soldiers. New Zealand’s first knitting pattern book – Her excellency’s knitting book – was published in 1915 under the supervision of Lady Liverpool, the governor’s wife, as a fundraiser for hospital services. The number of knitted items produced was huge. In August 1916 alone, 130,047 items were made. This work popularised knitting and it became a major home craft alongside sewing.

Women were also encouraged to take up spinning and contribute yarn to the war effort. To this end, in 1915, Lady Liverpool ran a competition to design and build a spinning wheel. It was won by Wellington-based architect J. W. Chapman-Taylor, who subsequently produced and sold his wheels.

Inter-war knitting and spinning

As knitting became widespread, more complex patterns were published. Everything from dresses to swimsuits was knitted. The Women’s Institute and the Women’s Division of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union encouraged rural women to gather together in knitting circles. Girls and boys were taught to knit, though boys were usually confined to simple items like hot water bottle covers. Young women knitted for their boyfriends. Competitions for knitted garments were held at rural shows and church fairs.

Knitting skills were very valuable during the economic depression of the 1930s. Women sold knitting to support their families. Old garments were unravelled and the yarn used for new clothes.

Spinning wheels were rescued from sheds and attics or made anew with whatever materials were at hand. The yarn was knitted or woven. The short-lived New Zealand Guild of Weavers, Dyers and Spinners was formed in 1935.


Māori women devised a unique way of knitting yarn without spinning the wool first. Women working as fleece-os (gathering shorn wool) in shearing sheds would roll freshly shorn wool on their thighs and knit the resulting strands with needles made from fencing wire in a practice known as uruahipi. Revived in 1967 during the first Wairoa Wool Week, a local wool promotion event, this practice was called Kiwicraft.

Second World War knitting and spinning

Home knitting was again in demand during the Second World War. Yarn was distributed to volunteers by the National Patriotic Fund Board and knitted items destined for soldiers were sent to local Red Cross branches. By May 1945, 1,168,963 items had been knitted. Wool for personal use was in short supply, but it could be bought using clothing ration coupons. Fine wool used for baby clothes was rationed and reserved for pregnant women.

As they had been during the economic depression, spinning wheels were brought back into more widespread use.

Later knitting

The post-Second World War baby boom created significant demand for knitting yarn to clothe all those babies, and speciality shops flourished in the 1950s. However, the wider post-war demand for manufactured goods affected public perception of knitting – what was once a thrifty, sensible way of clothing families started to be seen as boringly suburban and second-best. Some feminists viewed knitting as the epitome of domestic servitude.

Knitted garments became fashionable again in the 1970s and patterns mimicking designer fashions were readily available. Knitting machines grew in popularity. In the mid-1980s, 70% of New Zealand households had a resident knitter. However, the advent of cheap, imported commercially machine-knitted clothing in the 1990s reduced knitting to a hobby, though it did become a popular one in the early 2000s in line with renewed interest in handcrafts.

Later spinning and weaving

Spinning and weaving remained a hobby for some women after the war and became increasingly popular. The Auckland-based Handweavers’ Guild was founded in 1953, followed by the New Zealand Spinning, Weaving and Woolcrafts Society in 1969.

Other textile crafts

Embroidery, lace-making, crochet, tatting and quilting are all home crafts which were brought to New Zealand by European settlers in the 19th century.


Embroidery is decorative, fine needlework. It is used to embellish clothing, accessories and furnishings with pictures and patterns as well as for creating decorative textiles to hang on walls.

Missionary women were the first embroiderers in New Zealand. Hannah King was a particularly skilled needlewoman. Garments embroidered by her have been displayed at Te Waimate Mission House in Northland.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, girls demonstrated their embroidery skills by working samplers, pieces of cloth embellished with different stitches. Samplers typically contained pictures, words and numbers, including the maker’s name and the year in which the sampler was completed.

Embroidery was taught at schools from the 19th century and was part of the ‘art needlework’ curriculum offered by art schools from around the early 1900s – it was added to the schedule at the Canterbury College School of Art in 1907.

In 1970 embroidery was removed from the school examination schedule but it was still done by many women, and embroidery guilds were formed. In the 1970s embroidered woollen wall hangings were popular and women embroidered their clothing – even jeans.

In the early 2000s it was possible to easily convert hand-drawn pictures into embroidery patterns using digital embroidery software.

Embroidery rules

The author of the fine needlework course book published by the Army Education Welfare Service in 1944 was very firm about the correct use of embroidery on home-sewn garments: ‘People often talk about ‘putting embroidery on underwear’. That idea is quite wrong. Any sudden embroidery super-imposed on a garment cannot help but be wrong. All decoration must be as far as possible part of the construction of the garment or it must at least following the lines of the construction, having been planned from the beginning.’1

Lace, crochet and tatting

In lace, crochet and tatting, thread is worked to create intricate patterns. These crafts are commonly used to create doilies (small cloths placed on furniture), tablecloths, handkerchief borders, clothing cuffs and collars.

In England, Devonshire and the East Midlands were major centres of lacemaking and migrants from these counties would have continued to make lace in New Zealand. Making lace by hand was a very skilled and time-consuming task, and it was particularly valuable for this reason. Crochet and tatting were simpler crafts and sometimes used as a substitute for lace. These crafts were still practised on a small scale in the early 2000s.

The New Zealand Lace Society was formed in 1982.


Quilting is where two or more pieces of material are sewn together and filled to form one thicker, padded piece of material. Quilts can be made from large blocks of material or many small bits pieced together, and were commonly used as bedspreads. Patchwork quilts were a good way of using (and not wasting) scraps of material. Thrifty quilters used things like pieces of men’s old suits to make the reverse side. During the Second World War, when fabric was in short supply, cotton sugar bags were cut up and used in quilts.

Quilts for exclusively artistic purposes (wall hangings for example) started to be made in New Zealand around the early 1980s.

Cook Islands migrants brought the craft of tīvaevae (appliquéd and patchworked quilts) to New Zealand in the 1950s. Quilting was most likely introduced to the Cook Islands by 19th-century missionaries – tīvaevae are a hybrid of Western techniques and Polynesian motifs.

    • A. M. E. Brown, Fine needlework: study course. Wellington: Army Education Welfare Service, 1944, p. 2. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Sewing, knitting and textile crafts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 September 2013