Sailors, sealers and whalers
Crafts and craft skills – the ability to make and decorate objects for domestic use – arrived in New Zealand with its very first European visitors: sailors. Sailor communities, and, later, those of sealers and whalers, were largely made up of men who were highly skilled craftspeople.
Scrimshaw (carved and engraved animal bones, teeth and tusks) and rudimentary pieces of furniture, including some made of whale vertebrae, are most commonly associated with these early craftsmen. However, they were equally skilled in the less permanent textile crafts of sewing, embroidery, knotting and knitting. These crafts formed part of their work and leisure time.
Similar textile skills were found amongst the missionaries, who taught craft skills to Māori and the first European settler families. Church Missionary Society samplers (pieces of embroidery) are among the earliest surviving examples of locally produced textile crafts.
Immigrant painter Joseph Annabell recorded in his shipboard journal in 1852: ‘There is a wooden spoon mania. I can see a dozen at a time making wooden spoons, anyone with original ideas making anything for himself opens the eyes of others to their wants. When I made a filter, others were made similar. I also made some tin baking dishes, there have been scores made since. It is astonishing what can be converted to use when there is so little material. There seems to be a good share of talent aboard considering the number of passengers.’1
When European settlers began to arrive in greater numbers they were drawn in large part from the rural workers of Great Britain, who often possessed a high degree of non-professional craft skills. Even migrants from British cities often had craft knowledge that had survived the industrial revolution.
Adaptable craft skills proved highly useful in the new country. The ability to make, mend and decorate made hastily constructed homes considerably more pleasant.
Men’s and women’s work
Men typically made simple tools, furniture or household items. In some cases the appearance, as well as the basic function, was carefully considered.
Women were highly skilled in textile-related crafts such as sewing, embroidery, lacemaking, knitting and weaving. Clothing or household decoration was often made by hand or mended or reshaped out of necessity. Where time allowed, decorative work such as embroidery was used to transform ordinary garments or household objects into cherished and distinctive items.
One of the oldest surviving christening gowns in New Zealand is displayed at the Te Waimate Mission house in Waimate North. Thomas Holloway King, son of missionaries Hannah and John King, was baptised in the garment in February 1815.
Guidance came from pattern books and illustrated periodicals, but just as often from recalling remembered items from home. Christening gowns, cherished by families through generations, survive in large numbers and attest to the level of skill these women achieved.
Passing on skills
A commitment to passing on these essential craft skills to future generations meant that levels of craft skill grew through the 19th century. The needs of large rural communities, far from mercantile stores, made craft skills both relevant and desirable. This was in contrast to Britain, Europe and America, where urbanisation and industrialisation saw the beginning of a decline in the crafts.