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A year among the Maoris: study of their arts and customs

Chapter II — At the House of the Weaver

page 30

Chapter II
At the House of the Weaver

Weaving amongst the Maoris is not altogether a lost art. Indeed, it is said that there are certain tribes who are taking a renewed interest in it. Nevertheless, I met with very few natives who practised it. This was surprising, as the results are so fine and the methods so simple.

One morning I had an invitation to the whare of a chieftainess, who, though she had ceased to do any weaving herself, still retained a knowledge of the art. The arrangement was that I should make a sketch of her at her loom in the porch of her whare, but the rain fell so heavily that we were forced to take shelter inside. There was only one room, ill-ventilated and poorly lighted by one small window, but I was made welcome, and in answer to my enquiries my hostess showed me, as one of her own rank, the process and technique of her art.

She manifested considerable interest in some knitting I was doing for the soldiers. When I told her the article in question was for a Maori youth who was going to the war, she graciously complimented me on my work.

"Your weaving is much more beautiful," I said.

"Yes," she replied; "we make mats, not for soldiers —they should fight with bared bodies—but for priests and chiefs." Shaking her fine old head, she added mournfully: "Now, no more chiefs, for the young men dare to dispute with them. They think more of pakeha laws. So no more chiefs, no more carving, no page break
Phormium Tenax, or New Zealand Flax

Phormium Tenax, or New Zealand Flax

page 31more weaving, soon no more Maori. Now that the pakeha may buy our land we soon go."

Such a depth of pessimism was, no doubt, pardonable, for she was about eighty years of age, and had lived to see some wonderful changes amongst her race.

I expressed my desire to learn the whole process of weaving, so that I might tell my people on Manhattan Island all about it. Arrangements seemed to have been made, for now a piece of unfinished work was taken from its wrappings, and, placing a Maori cloak at my request about her shoulders, the old lady sat on a mat with the partly woven article before her. I wished to see the process from the beginning. It was difficult to explain this either to my hostess or to the others in the whare, so, much to their bewilderment, I went out into the rain and presently returned with a leaf of the flax plant. In awkward manner I began to prepare it. This caused some merriment, and put us all at ease. The old chieftainess, understanding now what I desired, requested one of her younger companions to collect an armful of leaves. But before going out into the wet the younger woman removed her shoes and stockings, a formality for which I was not prepared. In due course she returned, bearing a bundle of leaves six feet in length. Then, with a thoroughness which is typical of the Polynesians in relation to their art crafts, they showed me the process from beginning to end. Intervals of time for soaking the flax in water and for dyeing were, of course, imagined, and, like children at play, we supposed these things to be done. My hostess gave me little samples illustrating each stage of the work. True page 32to my promise to teach my fellow-islanders of Manhattan, I subsequently handed these samples to the museum authorities, and was pleased to be told that they were of great value.

Formerly, my hostess explained in her own imperfect English, the young women were instructed in the art of weaving by the priests, to whom were given the first garments made. The weaving of garments for priests and chiefs was done indoors, the weaver facing the door or the window. The weaving of other garments was done in the porch, the operator facing outwards. To a Maori a fine cloak was always worth more than money, "because before pakeha come one tribe make carving, another tribe make greenstone tiki or weapons of war, another tribe make cloaks. Chief give cloaks and get weapons or carving for them, but for motor-car must pay money. No take Maori work for motor-cars. How many cars have you?"

I thought of the distance I had travelled to learn the arts of the Maori. Was I to fail because I did not own an automobile on Manhattan Island? I thought of the taxis, the black and white, the brown and white, and the plain dusty black. "Sometimes," I replied, "I go out in a black and white car, sometimes in a brown and white, and sometimes in a plain black car, such as you know of." Thus was my prestige assured in the estimation of the good lady, and the work proceeded.

We were all seated on the floor in true Maori fashion, though my hostess owned some chairs. My ability to conform to the proper attitude, I feel certain, was page break
Maori Woman Weaving a Mat

Maori Woman Weaving a Mat

page 33partly instrumental in my making friends with them quickly. Other Polynesian women sit as the men in a low squatting position, with the feet alone touching the ground. Maori women sit on one haunch, with one foot under the knee of the other leg, which is extended to the side. A young girl brought out a basket containing some sharp stones and some mussel shells. Laying a flax leaf over her knee, she made a clean incision with a sharp stone across the middle of it. She then took a mussel shell, and with a quick movement ran it along the leaf from the incision to the end, thus removing the outer green cuticle and revealing the inner fibre. The other half of the leaf was similarly treated.

The fibre is held together by a glutinous sap of a deep cream colour. When the sap is fairly clear in tint the fibre is used undyed, but when the fibre is darkly tinted by the sap it is used for that portion of the fabric which requires to be dyed. Freed from the outer cuticle, the fibre is then twisted into hanks, such as are familiar to us in our worsteds.

"Suppose we now wait while she lie one week in cold water," said my preceptor. "Then we take her out, and we beat her on a stone—beat very hard with another stone. "Addressing another woman, she said: "You go get stone." Alas! there was no stone beater to be found in the village, so a piece of wood had to be used instead. Later on I saw one of these beaters in a museum. It resembles, both in form and size, the poi beater of the Hawaiians.

Taking for granted that the fibre had been in soak for a week, the chieftainess had it laid on the floor, page 34and she then instructed the young woman to strike it heavily, but in the direction in which the fibre ran. If struck otherwise the fibre would be broken. The material was then unhanked, and crumpled into the left hand from end to end in such a manner as to wave it, the right hand being used to retain it when crumpled. This process makes it more flexible, and produces a smoother and closer texture. Now the flax seemed like silken threads, and several feet in length. In reality, however, the fibre is only about two inches long, a fact which can easily be demonstrated by placing it in water. Many students have wondered why the Maoris who wove so splendidly did not know the art of spinning or the use of the distaff. In this shortness of staple may lie the explanation. As a matter of fact, the Phormium tenax, the scientific name of New Zealand flax, is not the ordinary flax of commerce. Its leaves yield about 12 per cent, of fibre, and it requires about eight tons of the green leaf to produce four cwt. of fibre. At the time of the very earliest European settlement Phormium tenax was a product of trade, and its export continues to this day. It is used for the manufacture of rope and sacking, but seldom now in the weaving of Maori cloaks.

While the younger woman was doing this work of preparation she told me that she and her friends had woven only the coarse floor mats and food mats and baskets, which were made not at a loom, but by a sort of braiding. She attributed the decline in the art of weaving to the fact that with the coming of the whites Maori ceremonials became fewer and fewer, and, page 35consequently, there were not so many occasions for the use of fine garments, either for personal wear or for presentation to distinguished visitors. Even the incantations chanted at certain stages of the work were now forgotten, or only fragments of them remembered.

Proceeding with the demonstration, the young woman softened and separated the strands by rubbing them between her hands. Several weft threads were taken in the left hand, and then there was a long pause and low mutterings. I thought perhaps some of the old incantations had been recalled. But no, the woman rose from the floor and retired to a corner, where my eyes were not supposed to follow her. I saw her draw up her one garment and roll the strands of flax across her thigh. The desired result, she explained, could not be obtained except in this way.

It seemed she had done something at variance with missionary teaching. I made her feel at ease, therefore, by asking her to show me exactly how it was done. She rejoined the group, and the demonstration continued. I tried rolling the flax a little above my garter-line. Something other than the result of my work appeared to interest my instructors. I thought, perhaps, it was a new form of garter fastener; but no, it was merely the colour of my skin, so much fairer than that of my hands and face, now tanned by many weeks at sea and by several months of field work. In explanation, I told how our young people take pleasure in cultivating a healthy glowing tan complexion in the summer-time. I added that our scholars believed that the Maoris were an Aryan race, and that long ages page 36ago, before they came in their canoes to Maoriland, their skin was fair. The implied compliment was quite lost. No, emphatically no; their ancestors were a dark-skinned race, and the men fully tattooed. To the Maori our fair skin appears washed out and weak. The old chieftainess now became the demonstrator, and had the loom set up before her. Nothing could be more primitive than this apparatus, for it consisted merely of two sticks, each about three feet in length, pushed into the ground a few feet apart, according to the size of the garment. Four such sticks are used for larger and heavier garments. In the old days they were usually carved, and sometimes each was ornamented with the smoked head of an enemy. My hostess had introduced an innovation in the shape of a cross-piece, which made the frame more rigid. She took up the work begun many years before. How many she could not remember, but she would have me observe that the end of a line had been reached when it was put away, as was the correct custom.

Weaving is done from left to right. My hostess took four weft threads in her hands. She passed two in front and two behind the warp thread in such a manner that the two front ones passed between the two back ones. Then the two back threads were passed between the now front ones, and so on alternately, thus making a twist between each warp thread. In this way the warp threads were encircled by the weft threads. Weaving is begun at the lower edge, and the garment is developed towards the neck, which is usually finished off with a fringe. Many of the cloaks are decorated with hangings of twisted flax page break
Weaving the Taniko Border of a Cloak

Weaving the Taniko Border of a Cloak

page 37from the neck, from the edges, or from the bottom-Like the weft threads, this fringe is rolled on the bare thigh, but my hostess was careful to have it explained to me that the two strands which together form a hanging or portion of a fringe, although both rolled in the same direction separately across the thigh, must, when placed together, be rolled in the opposite direction to that which they have each previously been rolled. The old lady was evidently ready to stop at the end of the first row of weaving, but she finished two rows, the younger woman explaining that it was unlucky to do an uneven number or to leave a row unfinished. Thanks to the rain which kept us indoors, the demonstration was completed.

After the close atmosphere of the whare, it was a relief to go out on to the porch. I searched amongst my sketching kit for some lollies—the New Zealand term for sweets or candies—for a group of children whom I had bargained with not to disturb us while the demonstration was in progress. The lollies I gave to the younger woman as a gift for herself and for distribution to the children, and pleaded one more favour, for I wanted to take a sketch or a photograph. Just then the chief came along, and the woman deferred to him. By arranging a price with him—an unusual thing among the Maoris, although it is customary to make a gift in recognition of services—the chief agreed to comply with my request. He placed the loom in the porch and the woman posed behind it, and I was able to take a couple of photographs. Holding an umbrella over myself, I began my sketch. I made a few lines of general construction and worked hastily, page 38knowing that with the natives one is never sure of obtaining a second sitting. Then the old chief sauntered over to examine my work. He saw the lines of construction, one of which came above her head. It evidently troubled him very much, for he made me understand that he wanted it removed. I quickly incorporated it in my sketch, and he appeared satisfied, but he never left my side again until the sketch was completed.

A cup of tea was brought to me, and then when I had settled my account with the chief and bestowed a gift upon the chieftainess I was pleasantly escorted beyond the limits of the pa. Arrangements were made for my return on the following day, but when I went again the old chief said, "No, not to-day," and I knew it was not to be that or any other day. Naturally, I was grateful for the storm which had sent us indoors, and had given me the rare opportunity of gaining a firsthand knowledge of Maori weaving. Later on, however, in another part of New Zealand, I was privileged to see at work another old woman, who was said to be the last to practise the art of weaving the beautiful feather cloaks, and the last to have been taught by a priest. She worked in a small tent erected in the garden of a distinguished Maori woman, the wife of a Scotsman learned in Maori lore. I was most charmingly entertained by this lady, whose friends danced and sang for us in the old Maori fashion. A meal was also cooked for us in Maori style. My hostess told me she had led a real war dance—"to encourage them," she smilingly said. To-day she was doing war work of another kind, for she was caring for page break
Women Weaving in Porch of a Maori House

Women Weaving in Porch of a Maori House

page 39the Anzac warriors who had returned wounded from Gallipoli.

Feather cloaks are woven in much the same manner as the plain flax garments. The feathers are woven in or attached to the weft threads, either singly or, if they are quite small, in twos or threes. Kiwi feathers, those most frequently employed, are a deep yellowish-brown in colour, and about three or four inches long. Te Rangihiroa thus describes the method of attachment:

"The larger feathers of the back are preferred, and these are usually stuck together in twos and threes by rubbing some sticky material round the quill-ends to allow of the feathers being attached as if they were one. In ancient times the gum of the flax (Phormium tenax) was used, but now soap is the material employed. The feathers are first attached along the fourth weft, and then about every third weft. The triple feathers are laid upon the warp thread, and both the feather-quills and the warp, are surrounded tightly by the weft. The projecting butt end of the feathers is then doubled over on the next warp thread, and the weft again secures them. Each little tuft of three feathers is thus caught in twice by the weft and kept securely in position. The feathers are attached in this way along the length of the weft, and each row overlaps the other, thus presenting a continuous surface of feathers.

"Kiwi feathers may be attached in two ways: (a) The inner or under surface of the feathers is laid upon the body of the garment in the way the feathers lie upon the bird. This gives a smooth appearance, page 40the feathers lying fiat. The Maoris term this Tamoe. (b) The reverse of the above is done, the upper surface or back of the feather lying upon the garment. This causes the feathers to stick up (wharaaraara), and gives a better appearance to the completed garment.

"The feathers of other birds, such as the tui, weka, kakariki, and kakapo, were also used, but usually mixed with pigeon feathers."

Maori cloaks, both feather and plain, were of many varieties, each having its distinctive name, and many were peculiar to certain tribes and districts in the country. They were of varying lengths, from a mere shoulder covering to a full-length garment. Most valued of all cloaks were those made of a red feather which grew beneath the wings of the kaka, and which were woven in singly. Each bird yielded only a few feathers, and the collection of a sufficient quantity for a cloak took a long time. Consequently, these cloaks are now of great value. I have never heard their value expressed in terms of pounds or dollars, but a Maori would probably tell us that as a work of art the cloaks are beyond all price. In the Hawaiian Islands the cloak of Kamehameha was made entirely of the mamo feathers. The gathering of these, according to the catalogue, lasted a century, and the cost of the cloak has been estimated as high as a million dollars. Unlike the Maoris, the Hawaiians had no knowledge of weaving. Their everyday garments were of bark-cloth or tapa, and in making their feather cloaks they attached the feathers to a net made from the fibre of the olona (Touchardia latijolia). In all page break
Arawa Chief with Cloak of Kiwi Feathers

Arawa Chief with Cloak of Kiwi Feathers

page 41the Polynesian Islands before the advent of the white man birds were caught by snaring, and after the removal of the treasured feathers they were released. Men were specially trained for this work, which needed great patience and skill. Sometimes the birds nested on almost inaccessible mountain crags or on wave-beaten rocks, but if the feathers were beautiful no work was too hard, no effort too hazardous.

Some of the finest carving done by the ancient Maoris is to be seen on the boxes made for the safe-keeping of their feathers and cloaks. In this, as in other respects, they were strikingly thorough, and their treasures invariably received an adequate setting.

New Zealand flax is not botanically related to the ordinary flax of commerce. For marketing purposes it has been given the name of "New Zealand hemp," but neither flax nor hemp correctly describes it. Botanists have divided the genus into two easily recognisable species, but it is admitted that there are types which could not readily be described as belonging to either of these species. In any case, the size and quality of the plants vary considerably according to the localities in which they grow. Hence, in the old days, the quality of the flax a particular district would produce governed the quality of garment made. In one district the natives might weave only the rough raincoats or the coarser mats, while in another they had the raw material for producing garments as soft and as glossy as heavy silk. The leaves of the plant are shaped as a sword, and vary in length from three feet to four-page 42teen feet, and in breadth from one inch to five inches. It was the opinion of the natives that the flowering of the wooden stalk or scape affected both the quantity and quality of the fibre, and their custom was to cut the leaves before the flowering took place. Tribes and families sometimes cultivated their own flax gardens, but for the most part they depended on the wild growth for their supplies. As they made rough baskets of the leaves to serve as substitutes for plates, and only used them for one meal, a liberal supply of flax was always necessary. Although this useful plant which provided so many of the domestic needs of the Maoris is found in the largest quantities in lowland swamp and along the waterways and valleys, it grows also on the sand-hills.

The best quality of fibre is silky in texture and of a clear creamy tone. This was used uncoloured, while those less clear in tone were dyed black, yellow, or red. So little weaving is now done that the old methods of dyeing have largely fallen into disuse. A dancing skirt which I had ordered to be made in the old manner, and which should have had its scraped portion dyed, was sent to me uncoloured, with the message that the proper kind of mud in which it should have been immersed was not to be had in the district.

Formerly black dye was made from the crushed bark of the hinau. The fibre to be dyed was not subjected to the beating process, and was well soaked. Alternate layers of the fibre and the black dye were then placed in a wooden bowl, covered with water, and left for twenty-four hours. Afterwards the fibre page break
Chief in dog-skin Cloak

Chief in dog-skin Cloak

page 43was placed in specially selected swamps and left for a time. Dyeing the material red was carried out by a process more akin to our own modern methods. The bark of the toatoa (Phyllocladus) was broken and crushed. It was then placed in a receptacle with heated stones, and the concoction was allowed to boil for some time. The fibre was then dipped into the liquid until the desired tone was obtained, and then stirred about in a bed of newly-made wood ashes, thus deepening the colour as well as fixing it. It was again immersed for a short time in the dye, and the strands well separated for drying. The only other dyeing colour was a rich yellow made from the bark of the coprosma (Maramu rannul), in which the flax fibre was boiled and then hung out to dry.

While the cloaks were made of the undyed material, the fringe-like hangings were made of the fibre dyed black. Red and yellow fibre was used in making the borders of the more valuable and the feather cloaks. The making of these taniko borders, as they were called, required great skill, as the red, black, yellow, and natural cream colours were woven into a well-defined design. Though these designs were necessarily limited to horizontal and vertical lines, they were nevertheless varied and rich. Warp threads were black, and the weft was formed of one strand of each of the other colours. These were held behind the warp thread, and the thread of the particular colour required in the design was wound about the warp and also about the other coloured threads of the weft. According to tradition, only noble dames did page 44this beautiful taniko work. It is a tribute to their taste as well as to their skill, and their white sisters in other parts of the world might well emulate them in this accomplishment. I am told, however, that the Maori men were also skilled in the weaving of taniko borders.