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.
In 2002 Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Judith Tizard was heavily criticised by male opposition party MPs for knitting when she was 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, who did so to relieve a hand numbness condition. The speaker ruled that knitting was permitted in the debating chamber but not 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.