Diggeress Te Kanawa, daughter of Rangimārie Hetet, was an influential Māori weaver and an inspirational teacher. She was a leader in the revival of Māori weaving that began in the 1950s.
An early start
Diggeress Te Kanawa, of the iwi (tribe) Ngāti Maniapoto, was born in Te Kuiti to Rangimārie (née Hursthouse) and Tūheka Hetet. She was named after the trench diggers of the Pioneer Battalion in World War I.
As a very sick child, she was schooled at home, where her mother, weaver Rangimārie Hetet, taught her how to harvest flax, prepare flax fibre, and weave. By the time she was 12, she had made her first piece of weaving. Like her mother, she was a perfectionist in the art and, as she grew older, she also became a skilled dressmaker.
Diggeress married Tana Te Kanawa, settling in Te Kuiti to raise their family of 12 children.
Natural materials, diverse techniques
Diggeress was passionate about weaving with natural materials, particularly muka (flax fibre). For her, this was part of maintaining the mana (prestige) of Māori weaving.
She deliberately used a wide range of techniques in her cloaks as a way of ensuring their survival. Her works that feature feathers and tāniko (geometric patterning) show particularly outstanding skill in design.
Reviving the art of weaving
During the 1950s, Māori weaving was in serious decline. The Maori Women's Welfare League asked Diggeress and her mother to teach customary weaving.
The two women would play a pivotal role in the revival of weaving. They broke with tradition by teaching people outside their tribe, believing that the art form would not survive if they didn’t.
Over her lifetime, Diggeress taught and inspired innumerable students, insisting that they retain the skills of working with natural materials. She was a founding member of Aotearoa Moananui a Kiwa, the first national Māori and Pacific weavers' organisation, formed in 1983. She travelled extensively to research cloaks in overseas museums, and to pass on her skills and knowledge.
Diggeress received many honours. In 2000, she became a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. In 2007, she received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Waikato.