Sew What?

Flax and Finger Weaving: Māori Woven Textiles

February 10, 2022 Isabella Rosner Season 3 Episode 15
Flax and Finger Weaving: Māori Woven Textiles
Sew What?
More Info
Sew What?
Flax and Finger Weaving: Māori Woven Textiles
Feb 10, 2022 Season 3 Episode 15
Isabella Rosner

In this mini episode, Isabella discusses hand weaving crafted by the Māori people of Aotearoa (New Zealand), focusing on its history, techniques, and many designs. 

Images and sources are available at @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The podcast has a website,

Show Notes Transcript

In this mini episode, Isabella discusses hand weaving crafted by the Māori people of Aotearoa (New Zealand), focusing on its history, techniques, and many designs. 

Images and sources are available at @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The podcast has a website,

Whatsup stitches! Welcome to episode 15 of season 3 of Sew What? with the girl who is here to bring historic needlework goodness to your ears, Isabella Rosner. It’s the second to last episode of the season! My, how time has flown. Started in September and now we’re here, in the cold depths of winter, at least here in the western hemisphere. Today’s episode is the last of the mini episodes, each one focusing on a continent. Today’s episode focuses not exactly on a continent, but on a region, one that I have baaaarely touched on the podcast, and that is Oceania! Yay delight! For those of you who don’t know, Oceania includes 14 countries, which are Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Micronesia, Vanuatu, Samoa, Kiribati, Tonga, Marshall Islands, Palau, Tuvalu, and Nauru. So today we are focusing on the traditional textiles of the Maori People of New Zealand, called Aotearoa in Maori. We’re going to move from needles to fingers to focus on hand weaving. Heck yeah! And, because we are nearing the end of the season, at the end of this episode I will explain what will happen to the pod after this season. So let’s dive in shall we? Let’s goooo. 

 If you know me and this podcast, you know that before we REALLY dive in, we gotta talk social media. Images of what I discuss in today’s episode, as well as the sources I used to write it, are on the podcast’s various social media accounts at @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. If social media is not the one for you, we also have a website,, which also has all the good good images and sources. You’re gonna really wanna see images of what I talk about, as there are lots of words that are likely new to most of you and it’ll help to see what I’m talking about. 

Okay, now let’s get to it. Here’s how this episode will go: I’ll first start with a brief history of Maori weaving. Then I’ll get into the types of weaving and the designs within them, and finally the various techniques and dye colours. Before that, though, we’d probably all benefit from going over some terminology. I will say that I will, unfortunately, likely do a very poor job of pronouncing Maori words. Google Translate does not have voice output for Maori and I haven’t been able to find voice recordings for some words, but I’m gonna try my best. Apologies in advance. Okay. SO, words. Kakahu means cloaks or garments. The main fiber used to weave Maori garments is called muka and it’s made from a plant called harakeke, which is also called New Zealand flax. There’s quite a bit of terminology when it comes to the different types of weaving, but we’ll go through those terms once we get to that section. Note that Maori weaving techniques are used to craft things like cloaks, mats, baskets, bags, panels used in architecture, fishing nets, food storage containers, and A LOT of other stuff. 

Also, one more thing before we discuss the history. Let’s go through the types of garments, focusing on the many types of cloak. There are roughly two types of garment shapes going on, one that goes around the waist and hangs down like a kilt and one that is worn over the shoulders like a cape or cloak. There are a lot of different garments, so I’ll provide you fine folks with a non exhaustive list because if I went through every example we’d be here all day. There is the pake or hieke, which is a rain cloak used to protect one from the cold and rainy New Zealand winter. It’s made from layer upon layer of hukahuka, flax fibre tassels, which are attached to a woven foundation. The pake predates European contact. The piupiu, on the other hand, came to prominence after Europeans came to the island. Piupiu is a skirt made of dried flax leaves. It’s worn by both sexes and it is part of the costume for kapa haka, which is the term for Maori action songs and the groups who perform them. There’s a wide variety of cloak styles, differentiated by the materials used. Some are made of plants, some animal skins, and some feathers. 

 Now let’s briefly get into the origins of Maori weaving. When the Maori’s Polynesian ancestors arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand, they found that aute, the plant used to make cloth on Pacific islands, did not grow well in New Zealand’s cooler climate. They instead looked to flax and built a rich culture around it. Leaves were cut off the harakeke, or New Zealand flax, plant, leaving the centre shoot. That centre shoot was stripped to extract muka or fibre. The fibre was washed and beaten with a stone and then hand rolled into threads, which were then dyed yellow, red-brown, or black. Maori weavers also used other plants such as the pingao, kiekie, and kakaho. According to Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, “The closest endemic species to aute was the houhi, whauwhi, or houhere (regional names for ribbonwood or lacebark). It was probably used in early attempts to make bark cloth, but eventually long thin strips of inner bark were used in some regions to make flexible skirts or capes.

For most clothing purposes the new settlers adapted their existing technologies to semi-familiar plants with leaves that could be used in the same ways as tropical palms. Leaves were split into strips to be plaited, or mussel shells were used to strip out the fibre – these strong fibres were called muka or whītau according to the region. These plants included the harakeke (New Zealand flax), kiekie (a climbing vine), tī kōuka or whanake (cabbage trees), tōī (mountain cabbage tree), pīngao (golden sand sedge), wharawhara, kōwharawhara (Astelia species) and various grasses. Some supplied fibre, others were used for plaiting or interweaving, and some for both; but the variety of harakeke species became the primary choice.”

 Maori weaving was historically and is still presently mostly done by women and these women were taught their skills in a building called te whare pora, meaning the house of weaving. Hineteiwaiwa is the principal goddess of te whare pora and she represents arts pursued by women. She’s known in Polynesia and New Zealand According to Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand, “Te whare pora (the house of weaving) has been described as a ‘state of being’ as well as a place. Weavers who were initiated into this house had their levels of consciousness raised to be in a state of optimum readiness to receive knowledge. This was achieved through karakia [ritual prayer]

It was believed that the karakia endowed the student with a receptive mind and retentive memory. They would become possessed with quick understanding and a thirst for deeper knowledge. Initiated weavers became dedicated to the pursuit of a complete knowledge of weaving, including spiritual concepts.

Very few weavers today experience this initiation ceremony. The practice was discouraged by missionaries, who considered it anti-Christian.” 

So, what happened to Maori weaving since New Zealand’s European colonisation? According to the Wikipedia article titled “Maori traditional textiles,” “Traditional Māori weaving was maintained during colonisation, however European materials were utilised and adapted for use in traditional weaving, meaning many traditional techniques for processing native fibres were in decline during the early 20th century. The craft suffered during urbanisation that occurred in the 1950s when Māori migrated from marae-based rural areas [marae being a communal or sacred place] to cities, however it was through the efforts of a few Māori women and the Māori Women's Welfare League that the arts of weaving and knowledge from Te Whare Pora were preserved and widely passed on, when the league began offering weaving classes. This included expertise being taught across iwi [or tribe] and hapū [or sub-tribe] boundaries, and taught in both a traditional way and also in training courses.

A national weaving school was set up in 1969, which contributed to the weaving revival and there have been a handful of important exhibitions of weaving work that have profiled the skill, cultural importance and artistry of Māori weavers. These efforts that started with notable weavers such as Rangimarīe Hetet, Diggeress Te Kanawa and Cath Brown continued through to the 1980s and became part of the Māori renaissance. Te Roopu Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa, the national New Zealand collective for traditional weavers, was established in 1983, which organises national hui [gatherings or meetings] and regional workshops to promote traditional weaving.”

Now, onto weaving techniques. We love weaving and we love techniques!! Maori weaving does not involve a loom and shuttle. It instead involves whatu, a system of finger weaving. According to the love of my life, Wikipedia, “A strong thread is fastened tautly in a horizontal position between two or four upright weaving sticks (turuturu). To this thread (tawhiu) are attached the upper ends of the warp or vertical threads (io). The warp is arranged close together. The weaving process consisted of working in cross-threads from left to right. The closer these threads are together, the tighter the weave, and the finer the garment.” Whatu is known as the cloak weave and it’s used to produce fabric. While some cloaks were made using whatu, others were made of dog-skin, woollen pompoms or tags, or bird feathers. 

One form of whatu is taniko, which refers to any type of ornamental border found on garments like bodices, headbands, and armbands. Taniko patterns are really geometric because essentially the base form of any design is a square. These squares are repeated on a lattice framework in a variety of colours and create diamond and triangle shapes. After Europeans arrived, Maori included wool, silk, and cotton fibers in their taniko. Within taniko, there are specific designs. These include patiki designs, which are based on flounders and which result in lozenge or diamond shapes. The kaokao pattern is formed by zigzag lines that create chevrons The niho taniwha pattern is like a notched tooth design, the Poutama pattern is a stepped design that signifies the growth of man, Tahekeheke patterns are striped, roimata patterns are teardrop shaped, and whetu are star shaped. As you can see, a heck of a lot of patterns can be made from the same basic unit, a tiny square.  

Maori also use weaving techniques to create home goods and smaller scale objects. There’s whariki, which is a braiding technique used to make floormates and raranga, a weaving style used for food baskets, bags, and other small objects. There’s also whiri, which covers a whole slew of forms of braiding used to make waist girdles, headbands, and other things that are like flat strips. It basically makes cord. 

I also want to briefly talk about the colours used to dye muka, the fibre gathered from New Zealand flax, because this episode has probably given you a good sense of the texture of these flaxen garments and objects but not their appearance in full living colour. Muka is, as I’m sure you have guessed, dyed with natural materials indigenous to the island. Paru, which is mud high in iron salts creates black dye, the bark of the raurekau tree makes yellow, and the bark of the tanekaha tree makes tan. The colours are set by rolling the dyed muka fibres in alum, which is a chemical compound that’s kinda like salt. Don’t ask me, I’m not a scientist.

 So yeah, there you have it, Maori weaving. We’ve talked about its history, techniques, designs, and colours. A treat, a delight! I know that this mini episode focuses on fingers rather than needles, but I think it’s a lovely counter to the shuttle weaving episodes we’ve had, both this season and in past seasons. Something that really excites me about Maori weaving is that it involves essentially the same basic plant, flax, that I have focused on in the vast majority of episodes in the podcast. Even if I haven’t said the word flax or its product, linen, it’s the material I’m referencing when I talk about everything from schoolgirl samplers to boro and sashiko. It’s ubiquitous in European stitching culture. But here we have the same base plant, flax, used in an entirely different way. A highly similar fibre is treated and handled in a completely distinctive way, which speaks to not only the power of the natural sources of the fibres that make up so many of our textiles, but also to the ingenuity of people. Different communities came to a very similar plant and utilised it in very different ways. And what we get is the power of material and the power of people! Delight! 

And now, before I leave you this week, I gotta talk about what’s next for Sew What? This season will be the last official season of Sew What? but fear not, the pod is not ending! This is just the end of large scale, many months long seasons. After all, I DO have a PhD to complete and while I very much love writing, producing, directing, and hosting this podcast, it is a heeeefty time commitment. 62 total episodes in under 2 years is a lot for one gal! So what comes next is one off episodes, every few weeks or every few months. They won’t be on a schedule, rather they will come out whenever I’ve interviewed a fabulous needlework person or when I have the burning desire to share some historic needlework goodness with you, which I’m sure will be often. Even though there won’t be any more full seasons, I will still be very active on the Sew What? social media pages and on the website. Because there will be no more full seasons, I will be ending the podcast’s patreon, as the generosity of the patrons means I have been able to save up the funds to keep the podcast on its podcasting platform for a good long time and I do not want to take money from folks when I am not producing podcasts on a regular schedule. So yes. In short, there will be more Sew What? once this season ends, there just won’t be episodes released as regularly and frequently. But I cannot give this sweet baby podcast up so she’s here to stay and hopefully the random, out of the blue episodes will be sweet surprises every time they land in your podcast app of choice. 

And on that note, I’ll say peace out for this episode. Thank you for listening! I will see you next week for the final episode of the season.


Now go out and stitch some stories and go weave with your fingers. Bye!