The first Māori settlers brought weaving to Aotearoa New Zealand, adapting the art form to make cloaks for the cold climate. Here’s the ‘short story’ from its beginnings - from innovation to decline and on to revival.
Arrival in Aotearoa New Zealand
When the ancestors of Māori arrived here from the eastern Pacific 800 or 900 years ago, they found themselves in a much colder land. To survive, they needed to make warm garments.
The settlers already knew how to weave, but they required durable, readily available materials. In their Pacific homeland, they had made cloth from the bark of aute (paper mulberry), but this plant was difficult to grow here.
Adapting old techniques for new materials
Harakeke (New Zealand flax, Phormium tenax) was the vital discovery of these early Māori. To make garments from its leaves, they initially adapted the raranga plaiting technique, used throughout the Pacific to make mats and baskets.
More importantly, they learned to extract harakeke’s inner fibre (muka) and to twine it together to form the foundation of cloaks. They did this by adapting whatu - a twining technique originally used to make fishing nets and traps.
They also discovered other suitable plants, such as kiekie, and they experimented with animal skins as well as feathers. They made cloaks of all kinds - from hardy pākē (rain capes) to magnificent cloaks for chiefs.
European contact - change and decline
An influx of European settlers in the 1800s brought about a wave of rapid change. Māori weavers began experimenting with European materials, like coloured wool, goat hair, and exotic feathers, and they adapted European sewing techniques. But as European influences spread, many Māori customary practices disappeared. By the end of the 1800s, most Māori wore European dress, and Māori weaving was in decline. The time it took to weave a cloak was perhaps out of step with the rapidly changing world.
Revival of Māori cloak-making
Since the 1950s, many Māori, both men and women, have dedicated themselves to reviving this age-old art. Contemporary weavers blend customary and contemporary materials and techniques, and woven cloaks continue to be highly valued.