Māori did not use weaving technology such as looms and spinning wheels. Instead, weavers developed a system of finger weaving that produced elaborate and beautiful geometric patterns.
Whatu aho rua and whatu aho pātahi are the weaving techniques known as the ‘cloak weave’, used to produce fabric. Traditionally, a piece of weaving such as a cloak was begun by stretching a cord between two turuturu (weaving pegs), which were either stuck in the ground or leaned against a wall. From this cord the whenu (warp threads) hung downwards and the finer aho (weft threads) ran horizontally between the whenu from left to right. Different colours of aho threads produced coloured patterns known as tāniko. As the work progressed it was hung over a second pair of pegs to keep it off the ground.
The tradition of making cloaks to mark special occasions, or as gifts for distinguished people, continues in modern times. These cloaks are sometimes made to be worn by non-Māori as well as Māori. Since 2004 the flagbearer for the New Zealand team at the Olympic Games has worn a cloak named Te Mahutonga (the Southern Cross). It was made over seven months by the outstanding weavers Te Aue Davis and Ranui Ngarimu, and named by the late Dame Te Atairangikaahu, the Māori Queen. Te Mahutonga includes kiwi, tīeke (saddleback), toroa (albatross) and kākāpō feathers.
Types of whatu
The simplest form of whatu weaving, called whatu aho pātahi (single-pair twining), was used to make tough, practical garments such as rain capes. These then had strips or bundles of unwoven plant material attached to make them weatherproof.
More sophisticated garments were made with whatu aho rua (two-pair twining). This method produced magnificent kākahu (cloaks), worn by people of rank. Sydney Parkinson, an artist on James Cook’s 1769 expedition to New Zealand, observed of Māori that ‘their cloth is white, and glossy as silk, worked by hands and wrought as even as if it had been done in a loom, and is worn chiefly by the men, though it is made by women, who also carry burdens and do all the drudgery’.1
Styles of kākahu
Kākahu were made in many styles, patterns and combinations of materials. They included:
- the kahu kurī (dog-skin cloak)
- the kaitaka, a cloak with silk-like texture and a border of tāniko
- the korowai hukahuka, a cloak adorned only with hukahuka (tassels or fringing)
- the korowai kārure, a cloak adorned with a three-ply tag known as kārure
- the kahu huruhuru, a cloak with bird feathers added, again often arranged by colour to form striking patterns
- the kaitaki huaki, a fine woven cloak with double tāniko bands.
A kākahu was often made with a slightly flared shape, to fit more comfortably and attractively around the wearer’s body. Many variations and additions to the basic technique were developed to finish the edges of a kākahu, make it suitable for special uses and enhance its beauty and durability.
A fine kākahu might take a skilled weaver several years to complete, so they were treasured garments. Kākahu could be used as a form of currency, in exchange for other prestigious items such as a war canoe, or for expert services such as tattooing.
As well as cloaks worn around the shoulders, Māori traditionally wore a skirt-like garment, called a rāpaki or pākē kārure, around the waist. This was superseded by the piupiu, a skirt-like garment which evolved after European contact. Women may sometimes have worn a maro (apron), covering the front of the lower body. These lower-body garments were generally not woven but instead made of free-hanging strands of material.
A garment made by Māori finger-weaving techniques was both elegant and functional, and its construction required the weaver to make a host of decisions about the materials, their treatment, technique and decoration. ‘Its main purpose could have been to provide shelter from the weather, to allow the wearer to pass unnoticed through bush or darkness, to give warmth, to acknowledge an important event, to acquire cooperation, to enable recognition, to proclaim status, to afford spiritual or physical protection in dangerous situations, to gain an advantage over an adversary, to seal an understanding, to trade, or any combination of these.’2