Last October, two males were bold enough to surprise a party of ladies of the Maori Women's Welfare League at Te Kuiti on the pretext of wanting to know something about weaving. One of the males, for obvious reasons, has to remain anonymous, but the other was Mr John Ashton, a photographer working for Te Ao Hou.
Mrs Tumohe, the lady of the house, received them kindly and most hospitably, and the pictures on these pages are a record of the methods used by Mrs Rangi Hetet, one of New Zealand's champion weavers, in making a simple basket. At least, she called it simple. The ladies also showed us their real masterpieces (photographed a little further on). In comparison to these, the demonstration basket was, of course, very modest. Still, one has to begin somewhere.
While Mrs Hetet was making her basket, the other ladies were busy on various projects. Mrs Tira Tumohe started off a whariki and Mrs Te Koi Moera produced a little food basket (kono).
Meanwhile we were told many trade secrets. We were also rather struck by a story of a lady whose life was saved by a kono. Her husband, the chief Tapana, had been told she had been unfaithful to him and would have killed her, had not Tapana's other wife, who knew she was innocent, told her that her life was in danger and saved her by a remarkable trick. She threw all the kono of the village into the Waikato River, pretending they were dirty. When the river was covered with the little green baskets, she swam across, her head covered by another kono, so that nobody could see her.
The description of basket making that follows here is based partly on what the ladies told us and partly on the account in Te Rangi Hiroa's The Coming of the Maori.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS EXPLAINED
When cutting flax for weaving never cut the complete bush. Leave at least the two inner leaves of each bush standing. Not only are these less suitable for the general run of jobs, but leaving them promotes growth. Mrs Tumohe had her flax bushes growing in the garden in a neat row. Although she does a great deal of weaving, the plants still grow abundantly and the home supply of flax never gets exhausted.
The leaves are split in halves. Notice the water drops on the picture. Flax should never be wetter than this when cut for weaving. It may split the hands if picked just after rain. Intense sun is no better: it dries the flax too much. Frost makes it too brittle. The weather should be just right.
Stripping is done with the thumb nail. For this basket, the strips are used as they are now. The finer and more ornamental type of basket goes through the processes of boiling and dressing. By dressing is meant the scraping of each boiled strip with a shell to make it pliable and prevent curling.
The end of each strip is scraped with a paua shell to clear a tuft of fibre.
The tufts are braided into a three-ply braid called whiri by means of strips added alternately on each side.
The braid is secured by an overhand knot at the end.
Work begins in earnest. Looking ahead to picture 9 we see the strips run in two directions. Sir Peter Buck called those pointing towards the right ‘dextals’ and those pointing towards the left ‘sinistrals’. For lack of a simpler recognised term we shall have to use these complicated words in what follows. The ‘dextrals’ are separated into two sets. Every second strip is lifted up and the other kept down. The ‘sinistral’ is picked up by the right hand and placed between the top and bottom set of dextrals.
The sinistral is covered over by top set of dextrals and the bottom set is raised by the left hand. This secures the sinistral and we are now ready for the next one.
One side is finished. As you see, just after the beginning a loop has been made to hold the work together. When both sides are like this, they are brought together and the free strips plaited together to close the gaps at each end to an even depth with the sides.
The free ends are plaited in a three-ply braid to form a finished rim.
The title photo shows the finishing of the basket. Note the well-shaped base with a sharp