I live in a very watery part of the world with an ocean and river estuary at my doorstep, lovely sluggish amber channels that snake into hectares of bronze rush, trickling creeks, gushing waterfalls, and wetlands filled with birds. It’s the sort of environment that plays host to ti kouka (the cabbage tree) and myriad different harakeke (flax). So I suppose it’s no surprise that I was eventually drawn towards weaving these, and other, native fibres.
For a while, I played around with making some of the many little harakeke projects that children often learn at school: bracelets, putiputi (flowers), headbands, and windmills. But it was the real McCoy that I was most interested in – kete, backpacks, baskets, and sandals – practical items that I would be able to use in my everyday life. To my disappointment, I soon found that each of these more complex projects involved a high degree of mathematics, something I was never good at. Although I tracked down patterns from books, old School Journals, and obscure internet sites, the art of weaving eluded me – it was just too darned hard. Finally, I found a teacher in our local town who agreed to spend a weekend with me to get me started – and I haven’t looked back!
I don’t know if you’ve ever done any house painting but if you have, you’ll have realised that most of the work goes into the preparation (water-blasting, scraping, sanding and filling) and that putting on the paint is a minor part of the operation. It’s the same with harakeke weaving, as I soon found out. It begins with choosing near-perfect blades of harakeke – those without holes or notches eaten out of them by insects. Each blade is split in two, has its edges trimmed, and is divided into strips of equal width. Then begins the exhausting task of bruising the strips.
Bruising involves running the back of a knife along both sides of the harakeke strips. It’s physically demanding, time consuming and, unless done in the company of others, is pretty tedious. I spent the first half day of my ‘weaving’ weekend bruising the many strips I would need to make my kete.
It’s said that Māori weavers traditionally set aside their weaving if ever strangers ventured onto the marae. There are two schools of thought about why this might have happened. The first is that the weavers didn’t want their patterns to be stolen. The second is that they didn’t want to be distracted from their task. The concern about distraction certainly rings true for me because the concentration required to keep on track when weaving, is intense. It’s all about counting, and if you get it wrong, many, hours later the error will eventually show up – usually in an uneven edge as you are finishing off the kete. All that work for nothing!
Over the years, I’ve made many articles, and not only from harakeke. Ti kouka leaves are very satisfying to work with, largely because they don’t require bruising before you can use them. They’re also (despite their thinness) much stronger than harakeke, which is why they were the material chosen for the making of sandals. I like to use them in smaller projects such as handbags because they are more delicate-looking than harakeke, and dry to a pale silvery-grey (one of the most interesting things about weaving natural fibres is that the articles you make change colour as they age). I’ve also woven keikei (a native climber which grows in warmer regions of the country) and, when travelling overseas, have worked with coconut leaves and the foliage of other palms. I’ve experimented with dying harakeke, using commercial red, green and black dyes, and with ‘preserving’ it for future use – a process which involves boiling the prepared strips and then drying them.
Mathematics aside, one of the trickiest parts of harakeke weaving is timing. While working with the strips, they tend to dry out so it’s essential to have a spray bottle of water beside you to dampen the fibre down – and if ever you stop work for a break, it’s important to cover the article with a damp towel. Left too long in a sate of dampness, however, the harakeke will become sticky, and eventually turn mouldy, so it’s important to set aside enough time to complete the project within 2-3 days. I would never consider undertaking the weaving of a kete, for example, if I didn’t have a full weekend up my sleeve to devote to it.
Patterns and dying aside, there are intriguing ways to decorate anything you make. I like to use shells as catches and fasteners. I’ll sometimes thread fragments of pāua into the finished edge of a bag, or slip a feather into the side of the weaving. One of the most wonderful opportunities for decoration occurred while I was working as a volunteer on Whenua Hou (Codfish Island), helping to feed kākāpō. As everyone knows, these very rare native parrots sport the most beautiful green feathers, flecked with brown. Nowadays, Māori weavers have first claim on any available kākāpō feathers to use in traditional woven cloaks. However, while on Whenua Hou, I was permitted to ‘borrow’ a few of these prized feathers to use in a kete which I had made on the island from blades of harakeke that had been cut back to clear a path (all plants on the island are protected and cannot be randomly trimmed or harvested). Although I couldn’t take my kete off the island (plants and plant material can’t be removed from the reserve), it was a special feeling to see it hanging in the common room, adorned, for a time, with the treasured green feathers.
To date, I still have two weaving projects to undertake. The first is to prepare a pair of ti sandals, and the second is to weave a pōhā , a pouch, lined with the bark of tōtara, and used for holding mutton birds preserved in their own fat. I’m not a meat eater, but I do like the ingenious thought behind these practical containers. If you are considering weaving with native plants, I encourage you to give it a go. There are many small objects you can teach yourself to make at home but, where larger projects are concerned, I recommend you head for a class or find yourself a teacher. You’ll enjoy the learning and the company.
Look in a book
Fun with Harakeke: 50 projects for Beginners by Mike Prendergrast
Te Mahi Kete: Māori Flaxcraft for Beginners by Mike Prendergrast
Grow your own materials!
ESTABLISHING A PĀ HARAKEKE
Learn to respect your materials
Harakeke is a highly respected material. Use it wisely and follow the
Māori protocol when harvesting and weaving it. Click here for details.