Māori originally wove flax into practical items such as baskets and fishing nets. Over time, this unique skill became recognised as a prized art form.

When Māori first arrived in Aotearoa, they encountered a climate that was much colder than their homeland in Polynesia.

They adapted quickly by using their weaving skills to produce korowai (cloaks) and other practical objects such as kete (baskets) and whāriki (mats).

The most widely used weaving material was (and still is) harakeke - otherwise known as New Zealand flax.

Weaving women

Weaving is traditionally done by women and skilled weavers are prized within their tribes.

'Aitia te wahine o te pā harakeke' is a Māori proverb that translates to mean 'Marry the woman who is always at the flax bush, for she is an expert flax worker and an industrious person'.

The most widely used weaving material is harakeke - otherwise known as New Zealand flax.

Symbolism in weaving

As with all forms of Māori art, weaving is full of symbolism and meaning. Each piece of raranga is a reminder of the arts and stories Māori people brought across the ocean with them. Weaving is a living art form passed down from the ancestors and a strong symbol of the survival of Māori culture. 

The kete, for example, is used in everyday life as a basket or bag. It can also represent a container of knowledge and wisdom. 

Highly-skilled Māori women painstakingly produce finely woven korowai (cloaks).

Cloaks of beauty

As well as practical items, women would weave beautiful garments such as skirts and cloaks.

Traditionally, cloaks were woven by hand between two upright weaving pegs.

Feathers and decorative threads were integrated into the fabric as the weaving progressed. Natural dyes were used to achieve a variety of colours; paru (swamp mud) was used to achieve a black tone and tanekaha (bark) produced brown.

The feathered cloak, or kahu kiwi, is an especially sacred garment.

Each cloak is a treasured heirloom. As they were woven from kiwi feathers, they are precious today. They were traditionally reserved for chiefs and elders, but could also be made for family members or honoured members of the tribe.

Learn more about Māori culture