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The Coming of the Maori

Palm-Leaf Baskets

Palm-Leaf Baskets

In Polynesia, different types of useful baskets are made of coconut leaf. The commonest type in the Cook Islands, termed a tapora (93, p. 172), is made of a section of leaf midrib with the leaflets intact on each side. The open leaflets on one side are plaited in check to the required depth with a working edge of six to eight dextrals, but the projecting free sinistrals on the left and free dextrals on the right are not turned in to form side edges as in mats. The leaflets on the other side are plaited similarly. The two sides are brought together and the free leaflets from either side at the ends project naturally as sinistrals and dextrals. These are plaited together to close the gaps at each end to an even depth with the sides. With the midrib below, the two plaited sides are brought together so that each edge with the free leaflet ends forms a line. Starting at the far end, the craftswoman plaits those leaflets inclined towards her in a three-ply braid by taking a weft alternately from either side, the leaflets pointing away from her being left out. On completing the first braid course, the basket ends are reversed so that the end of the braid is at the far end and the remaining free leaflet ends now point towards the plaiter. The braid end is doubled over and a second course completed by alternately including a free leaflet from either side in the braid. At the end, the braid is continued as a free tail and stopped with an overhand knot. The two-course braid closes the bottom of the basket securely and the midrib is then split to open the basket, the split midrib on either side forming the rim.

page 154

Another type of basket is made from a split coconut-leaf strip twice the length of the basket and with the leaflets on one side only. The leaflets are plaited in a continuous sheet but the projecting leaflets at either end are left free. The two ends of the sheet are brought together and the free leaflets are plaited to close the end. The sides of the plaiting are brought together and the bottom closed with the two-course braid technique used in the tapora basket. The open rim has already been defined by the continuous midrib strip.

Other types of improved coconut-leaf baskets are made but they do not concern us here.

It may be assumed, again, that the early Maori settlers applied the coconut-leaf technique to the nikau palm before flax became established as the standard material. It is to be expected also that flax was so superior that the use of nikau was abandoned except under circumstances where flax was not procurable. Such a condition applied in bush country and I was told at Koriniti on the Whanganui River that bird-hunting parties actually did make baskets out of nikau leaf in the forests of the interior. Fortunately a specimen preserved in the Dominion Museum was figured and thus described by Hamilton (46, p. 338, Pl. 44, Fig. 1):

"One [basket] is very ingeniously made from the leaves of the Nikau palm (Rhopalostylis). The midrib being split, forms the upper edge of the basket."

From the illustration and the above description, it is evident that the Maori up to recent times occasionally made a basket from a section of nikau leaf by the same technique that the Cook Islanders made a tapora basket from a section of coconut leaf. Insignificant as the nikau leaf basket may appear as compared with the more durable flax basket, it forms an important technical link with the past.