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The Coming of the Maori

Early New Zealand Garments

Early New Zealand Garments

The early settlers undoubtedly knew the loincloth and the skirt but the first two waves which arrived in New Zealand were faced with the same problem as the atoll islanders with regard to raw material for they did not bring the paper mulberry plant with them. However, they found a substitute material in the indigenous flax and their knowledge of plaiting would readily enable them to plait a long band as a loincloth for men and a form of kilt or mat to serve as a skirt for women.

Evidence in favour of the early existence of the plaited loincloth is provided by the Chatham Islands. Skinner (71, p. 110) quotes early European visitors as mentioning a small mat which the Morioris passed under the crutch and attached in front and behind to a belt. This corresponds to the short type of maro used by the Manihiki people for everyday wear. A long maro termed a marowhara is mentioned in Moriori legends and any doubt as to its technique is dispelled by an actual specimen in the Dominion Museum which has been described by Roger Duff (31, p. 213). This maro is made of scraped but unscutched flax by plaiting in check. It is 16 feet 10.5 inches long but rather narrow with a maximum width of 5¾ inches. It is decorated, as seen from the illustration (Pl. VIII), with narrow longitudinal bands of colour by a form of overlaid plaiting and the ends are decorated with tufts of feathers. It was worn by men of rank or going to war and thus marked social distinction like the long maro of Manihiki. Both are characterized by fine plaiting, overlaid colour decoration, and fringed ends albeit the Moriori maro was fringed at the ends with feathers instead of fine strips of bark.

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Further interesting information is recorded by Duff (31, p. 214) regarding a fragment of fine plaiting excavated from a rock shelter in the South Island and now in the Otago Museum. The specimen is decorated by overlaying a darker strip of material over the foundation wefts in a technique similar to that of the Moriori marowhara. From its fine plaiting, Duff concludes that the fragment was part of a maro and suggests the presence of the plaited maro in the South Island within a century or two ago.

If we accept the theory that the Moriori were a branch of the earliest settlers of New Zealand who found their way to the Chatham Islands before the coming of the Fleet, we may assume that through isolation, they continued to plait a form of loincloth which was in vogue in New Zealand before they left. The presence also of the plaited maro in the southern part of the South Island indicates that a similar technique was preserved in a part of New Zealand which was fairly remote from the centre of development in the North Island. However, the retention of the archaic plaiting technique appears to have been confined to the loincloth for some rain capes in the Otago Museum (91, p. 192), obtained from a cave in central Otago, indicate clearly that the makers were acquainted with the single-pair twine that formed part of the later development of weaving.

The early technique of the female skirt or its equivalent is a matter for speculation. Information from the Moriori is scanty but Hunt, quoted by Skinner (71, p. 109), stated that "In addition, the females girded their loins with a band of plaited flax." As throughout Polynesia women did not wear the maro, it may be assumed that the Moriori women observed the same convention. Hence the plaited band of flax may have been a short skirt. It was easy enough for the early settlers in New Zealand to have arrived independently at the atoll technique of plaiting a band of sufficient depth for concealment and then allowing the weft ends to hang down free. In fact, the modern dance kilt (piupiu) might well have been derived from such a prototype. In these, the plaited part has been replaced by weaving and the pendent free weft ends, through being lightly scraped and subjected to heat, were curled into cylindrical rolls (91, p. 47).