Muka, the fibre extracted from harakeke (New Zealand flax), forms the base of most kākahu (cloaks). It is also a powerful symbol of connection. Explore its practical, spiritual, and social significance for Māori.
Extracting and processing muka
Māori extracted and processed muka by:
- scraping the outer flesh from the leaves with a mussel shell
- rolling, soaking, and beating the fibre
- hand-rubbing it several times to soften the threads for weaving.
Practical significance – weaving threads
To create a cloak’s base, weavers divided the muka strands into two groups of thread – aho (horizontal threads, or the weft) and whenu (vertical threads, or the warp). They wove these together by twining, or twisting.
Muka was also used as thread to stitch animal-skin cloaks together, and it had many other uses outside the realm of clothing too.
Spiritual significance – connecting worlds
Māori see muka as more than a mere material. This inner fibre symbolises the unseen and connects the physical and spiritual realms – te ira tangata (the realm of people) with te ira atua (the realm of the gods).
The language of weaving reflects this belief. ‘Aho’ refers to connections. ’Whenu’ may represent the womb or whenua (land). An older name for ‘whenu’ was ‘Io’ – the supreme being.
Social significance – connecting the generations
Muka creates other connections too – through the stories that cloaks carry. In this way, muka links the ancestors who made or owned them with their descendants today, drawing together the past, present, and future.
A cloak, over its lifetime, absorbs the mana (prestige) first of the weaver and subsequently of every wearer and every event it is associated with. The muka represents these historical threads of connection.