Practical objects from fibre
As well as clothing and decorative panels, Māori made a large range of practical objects such as floor mats, kete (baskets), fishing nets and eel traps, using both weaving and knotting techniques.
Many of these objects were produced by a plaiting technique called whāriki. Unlike weaving, in which the warp and weft threads cross at right angles, in whāriki and related techniques the strands cross diagonally.
Types of whāriki
The term ‘whāriki’ refers both to the plaiting technique and the mats made from it. Floor mats were of great importance before European arrival, when even the largest and most distinguished carved houses had dirt floors. Several types of whāriki were made, each with a special purpose. Coarse mats called whāriki and tūwhara were the basic floor covering. Finer sleeping mats called takapau and tīenga were spread over these. A particularly fine takapau might be woven for a high-born woman to give birth on. Coarse tāpaki mats were placed over food in a hāngi (earth oven), then covered with earth to retain the steam and heat. The same mat-weaving technique was once used to make the sails of seagoing canoes, but these, and the art of making them, disappeared once ocean transport ended several centuries ago.
Whāriki are still produced in the 2000s, especially for use in wharenui (meeting houses). They are frequently placed beneath a coffin during a tangihanga (funeral) as a mark of respect to the deceased.
Raranga is a related weaving style used to make rourou (food baskets), kete (bags) and other small objects once vital to traditional Māori society. Rourou were often the first production of a novice weaver. They were made of untreated flax and were used only once and then discarded, for reasons of hygiene. The introduction of crockery made rourou less necessary, but they are still seen today in many marae dining halls.
Traditional Māori garments did not have pockets, so baskets of many sizes and shapes took their place. They were sometimes made from tī kōuka or whanake (cabbage tree), or nīkau palm, but harakeke (flax) was the most common material. Special small kete, called pūtea, were filled with fragrant plants and given as gifts. Traditionally, the most beautiful basket (kete whakairo) was woven by a skilled weaver expecting her first child. A special chant was used to invoke the help of the atua (gods).
Whiri refers to the technique of braiding used to make strips of material such as waist girdles, headbands and tātua (belts). This method could produce very long and tough straps of undressed flax, once used by Māori in place of ropes, to carry food and firewood.
Fit for fishing
A French visitor to the Bay of Islands in 1772 commented on Māori fishing equipment. ‘Their fishing-lines, as well as their nets of every description, are knotted with the same adroitness as those of the cleverest fishermen of our seaports.’ Fifty years later, trader Joel Polack confirmed that ‘[t]heir fishing lines are infinitely stronger, and fitted to bear a heavier strain, than any made from European materials. The method of making up fishing lines is very tedious. The manufacturer twists it upon his thighs and rolls the flax with the palm of his hand, to which he constantly applies his saliva.’ 1
Nets and other equipment
A related craft was the making of kupenga (fishing nets) and other fishing gear. Men as well as women worked together to make large nets. An entire village might join forces to make a giant net known as a kaharoa, up to 2 kilometres long. The mesh was finer in the middle than at the ends, to give the net strength to hold a massive catch. Māori also produced a range of smaller nets, such as dragnets and funnel-shaped hoop nets, with a rim made from supplejack vines.
Crayfish pots were made from a frame of supplejack and a lattice of thin mānuka rods tied with green flax. Hīnaki were eel traps, which could be used to keep eels alive underwater until they were needed for eating. Bird cages and bird traps were also skilfully made, often using materials such as mangemange and kiekie, found in the bush near the nesting places of the birds themselves.