Rangituatahi Te Kanawa is a Te Papa Conservator, specialising in Māori textiles. Find out about her formative years and her passion for preserving treasured cloaks for the future.
Rangituatahi Te Kanawa is of the iwi (tribe) Ngāti Maniapoto. As a child, she was surrounded by weaving. Both her mother, Diggeress Rangituatahi Te Kanawa, and grandmother, Dame Rangimārie Hetet, were leading Māori weavers.
Rangi says: ‘I was often smelling flax on the stove. We would wonder what was for dinner, but we’d get a whiff of harakeke boiling ... And doing family chores, we’d vacuum muka [flax fibre] – it clogged up the vacuum cleaner …’
In 1986, Rangi began what would become her life’s work and passion. Her job is to determine what causes textiles to break down, and to develop strategies to stabilise them and prolong their life.
Conserving cloaks – stabilising black-dyed fibres
Many Māori cloaks are made from muka (flax fibre). Muka eventually becomes brittle if exposed to light and humidity.
Black-dyed muka poses the biggest problem, and this has been the focus of Rangi's research. The most common black dye is paru (mud rich in iron salts, especially iron tannate). The pigments in paru are very acidic. When exposed to the air, they begin to break down the muka, turning it powdery. In particular, this damages the black tassels that decorate cloaks, as well as the borders of tāniko (geometric patterning), which include black-dyed fibres.
In collaboration with scientists at Victoria University of Wellington and the British Museum, Rangi has developed a treatment using sodium alginate and zinc acetate. This treatment binds the fibres together and slows the deterioration caused by the dye, ensuring that precious taonga survive.
A weaver and conservator
Rangi is a weaver as well as a conservator: ‘I have a huge appreciation of the craftsmanship in this work. Because of my background, I know exactly what a whatu (twining) stitch is. I know how many whatu stitches are in each weft (horizontal) row.
‘Each cloak is very special. They are very inspiring – so much so that I’ve made a cloak. The design is based on what I’ve seen.’