Story: Sewing, knitting and textile crafts

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.

Story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: Knitting patterns, probably from the 1950s and 1960s

Story summary

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Nineteenth-century British settlers brought domestic textile crafts including sewing, quilting, spinning, knitting, weaving, embroidery, lacemaking, crochet and tatting.

Historically many women were unpaid housewives. Whether it was mending old items or making new ones, sewing and knitting were vital day-to-day tasks. Meanwhile decorative crafts such as lacemaking and embroidery allowed them to beautify their homes on a budget.


Although there were commercial dressmakers and tailors after 1840, many people could not afford clothing made by professionals, and home sewing remained a necessary skill for women and girls. Most girls were taught to sew by older female relations.

From 1899 all girls attending public primary schools with women teachers had to learn needlework. At times boys were also taught to sew.

The first sewing machines arrived in New Zealand in the mid-1850s.

Knitting, spinning and weaving

Spinning and knitting were highly valued during the First and Second World Wars, and women were urged to spin their own yarn and knit warm garments to send to soldiers.

After the wars these crafts, as well as weaving, grew in popularity. In the mid-1980s, 70% of New Zealand households had a resident knitter.


Embroidery was taught at schools from the 19th century. In 1970 it was removed from the school examination schedule but it was still done by many women, and embroidery guilds were formed.

Lace, crochet and tatting

In these crafts thread is worked to create intricate patterns. Making lace by hand is a particularly skilled and time-consuming task, so lace was very valuable. Crochet and tatting were simpler and sometimes used as substitutes for lace.


Patchwork quilts were a good way to use up fabric scraps. During the Second World War, when fabric was in short supply, cotton sugar bags were cut up and used.

Cook Islands migrants brought the craft of tīvaevae (appliquéd and patchworked quilts) to New Zealand in the 1950s.

Decline and revival

In the last quarter of the 20th century many women entered the paid workforce, leaving them with less time to make things at home. As more cheap, commercially made clothes and soft furnishings were imported into New Zealand, particularly from the 1980s, there was a further decline in home crafts.

In the early 2000s a handcraft revival began, and greater numbers of women took up these activities again.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Sewing, knitting and textile crafts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 July 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 September 2013