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The Coming of the Maori

Post-European Changes

Post-European Changes

The Maoris reached the highest peak in Polynesia in the manufacture of clothing. Not only were the immediate needs for protection against cold met adequately but a high artistic sense is revealed by the decorative techniques which were developed.

The type of garment worn denoted social status. Woven garments were also a form of wealth necessary for social exchange and to provide appropriate gifts at marriages and funerals. Thus women continued to weave cloaks long after the people had abandoned them as ordinary wearing apparel in favour of European clothing. Changes in material were influenced by the tediousness of preparing the native fibre and by the availability of trade substitutes. It was a time-consuming task to prepare the flax fibre warps. Hence when traders supplied wick material in skeins to European settlers for use in making tallow candles, the Maori women seized an escape from drudgery by using wick material as readymade warps. The trade stores also supplied cotton thread for use as wefts, and coloured worsteds took the place of dyed fibre for decoration. Some conservatives, however, continued to use flax material and it was from Tira Hori in the Whanganui district that I learned the main principles of downward weaving.

With each generation, the number of expert weavers has dwindled. The supply has not been able to meet the demand and hence social obligations which were formerly discharged by a gift of cloaks have to be met with purchased articles from another culture. Those who are fortunate enough still to own flaxen cloaks may wear them at important social functions as a symbol of the past but they form but a transient cover over the European clothing which obtrudes beneath.

Though the craft may linger in a few districts, it has completely disappeared over most of New Zealand. Localities which derive an income by page 178entertaining tourists, continue to make flaxen kilts as a part of the stage wardrobe. Associated with commercial ventures, taniko bands are made as fillets for the head and waist bands for kilts but coloured worsteds or silk thread have replaced the original dyed flax. Downward weaving may be taught as a handcraft at schools to exercise the hands and the mind, but our young women must now devote so much time to learning new skills for a permanent occupation that they have little time to spare in learning, much less practising, the once important but now practically obsolete craft of downward weaving.