Māori arts and crafts play a significant role in Māori culture, recording korero (stories), history and knowledge to pass down to the next generation. Created in a range of mediums from wood carving, to bone and stone carving, weaving was, and still is, a popular art form for both its practicality and beauty.
At New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute (NZMACI) at Te Puia, students are taught to weave traditional taonga using New Zealand native harakeke (flax) at Te Rito, The National Weaving School.
Emily Rangitiaria Schuster, a founder of NZMACI’s Te Rito once said “weaving is a strong link with my past… I feel I am the caretaker of the art-form for the next generation.”
The school, Te Rito, gets its name from the baby shoot that lies in the middle of the flax bush. Nurtured to reach its full potential, the leaves that lie on either side of te rito are the mātua (parents) and it’s their role to support and protect te rito. Representing a family unit that mustn’t be broken, these three inner leaves remain, while the surrounding outer leaves can be cut for weaving.
Once the harakeke is cut, it then goes through seven stages of preparation before it is ready to be woven into a masterpiece. First, it is split to remove the tough edges and divided into strips which are then sorted, shaking away the shorter lengths. The strips are then scraped with a sharp mussel shell to remove excess moisture, making the harakeke soft and flexible.
Many types of harakeke have a high fibre content, known as the muka, which can be extracted with the use of a mussel shell. The fibre is then rolled and twisted in a process called miro (twining) and beaten with a patu muka (stone), to further soften it and make it more pliable. Mud and tree bark were traditionally used to colour the harakeke, while today combinations of natural and commercial colourings are used.
From the practical to the sacred, woven items were prized and often given as precious gifts or traded. These taonga (treasures) include kākahu (prized cloaks) piupiu (flax skirts) pākē or hīeke (rain capes) whāriki (floor mats) kete (woven baskets) and tūrapa or tukutuku (panels placed into the carved meeting house).
Former Te Rito tutor, Erenora Puketapu-Hetet said “weaving is more than just a product of manual skills. From the simple rourou (small food basket) to the prestigious kahu kiwi (kiwi feather cloak), weaving is endowed with the very essence of the spiritual values of the maori people. The ancient Polynesian belief is that the artist is a vehicle through whom the gods create.”
Te Puia Steambox Tour visitors can try their hand at weaving a puitputi (flower), under the watchful guidance of their guide.