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The Coming of the Maori

The Change in Technique

The Change in Technique

Textiles made from flax by plaiting were somewhat stiff and rough and not the best form of garment for wearing next to the skin. The early settlers tried to make the loincloths softer and more pliable by scraping the flax on both surfaces and splitting it into narrower wefts.

In scraping flax with a shell, the early settlers found that the leaves were rich in strong fibres which by extra scraping could be freed for making fishing lines, nets, and cordage. It was found that a greater abundance of fibre was in the upper half layer of the leaves. To avoid the tedious task of scraping away the lower half of the blades, a method was devised for lightening labour. The side edges and the midrib were split off and discarded and a half blade with the lower surface uppermost was doubled over the left forefinger at a point towards the butt end. While held taut with the left hand, a transverse incision was made across the page 163half blade to roughly half its thickness. The flax was straightened out, a shell scraper applied to the surface under the incision, and by exerting pressure from the incision outwards towards the tip end, the part of the leaf which was cut through peeled off in a continuous layer. The butt end of the leaf was treated similarly. The peeled off portion consisting of the true under surface and layer with little fibre was discarded. The retained strip which was the full length of the leaf, consisted of the true upper surface and the layer beneath it which contained most of the fibre. To clear the fibre, the upper strip was further scraped to remove the upper epidermis and the interfibrous material and it is this process of extra scraping to clear the fibre that is termed scutching.

In the process of preparing flax fibre, the early settlers became acquainted with the fact that the stiffer under layer of the flax leaves could be split off and it must have been obvious that the unscutched upper layer could be split into narrow wefts to form softer and more pliable garments by the prevailing technique of plaiting. The unscutched upper layer is soft and fibrous and any unremoved epidermis turns a distinct yellow in colour. Fragments of fine plaiting have been discovered in addition to that described by Duff, in which the fibrous wefts contained a good deal of yellow epidermis. It is thus possible that they are relics of an older technique in which the split, unscutched upper layer was actually plaited into garments such as the loincloth maro. However, at some period down the path of technical development, the early craftsmen abandoned plaiting as the orthodox technique for manufacturing clothing.

It may be reasonably assumed that the change in technique was due to the change in the nature of the material used. Plaiting with narrow wefts is rendered more difficult through the free ends being more liable to become tangled than wider wefts. If the wefts are soft and fibrous, the difficulty is increased. The Samoans solved the difficulty in making fine mats of the upper layer of pandanus leaf and shaggy garments of bark fibre by plaiting a short section and then tying the free ends of the sinistrals together with a slip knot termed fausa and doing the same with the corresponding dextrals (95, p. 270, Fig. 155). Thus the two sets were kept distinct and when the plaiting came round, the knots were loosened for the short sections which could be controlled. By means of the fausa technique, the Samoans were able to lessen the problem of entanglement and so retain the technique of plaiting in making two types of clothing.

The Maori must also have encountered the problem of entanglement when or if they used the unscutched upper layer of flax and even more so when they began to use scutched flax fibre as material for better garments. If, as I believe, they used plaiting at first they showed remark-page 164able originality in solving the problem of entanglement by adopting the entirely different technique of single-pair twining.