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No. 5 (Spring 1953)
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Through the kind co-operation of the Kawiu branch of the Maori Women's Welfare League, Te Ao Hou presents in the following pages an illustrated story on making Maori mats. Many readers found our photographs showing the weaving of baskets interesting. This story is similar. But first we should like to introduce our readers to the people who make the mats ….

KAWIU PA makes up for lost time

On the shores of Lake Horowhenua, near Levin, lie two settlements of the Muaupoko tribe. In numbers they are small, totalling only about 150 to 200 people. Until recently community activity here had been rather quiet, livening up only during the late summer when the lake is visited by a rare and particularly fine type of eel. Experts say this eel has a remarkable life-cycle, and that although it is caught and eaten here, it is spawned on the other side of the Iron Curtain, that is, along the shores of Siberia. Mr Tau Ranginui, who now lives in Wellington but comes from Kawiu, told Te Ao Hou that he doubts these scientific theories, as he has seen eels of this specie no longer than two inches among the mysterious arrivals. That two inches of eel could swim all the way from Siberia he refuses to believe.

In recent times Kawiu Pa, of the Ngati-Hine (subtribe of the Muaupoko) began to buzz with life. A dining-hall was built and opened about two years ago, following the strenuous

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efforts of the local elder, Mr Jim Hurinui. At the date of Te Ao Hou's visit the frame of a new meeting-house was also standing on the marae site; the iron roofing for this building was already stacked in the dining-hall. It appears this meeting-house is due to be opened in March. If the people can find an instructor to teach them carving, it will be a carved meeting-house, too. The community also has an active young people's club, led by Mr Tukupuau. This club meets three times a week, learning haka, action songs and the Maori language. Each pa has its own girls' basketball team.

The women, about the same time as the dining-hall was built, formed a branch of the Maori Women's Welfare League; it was the first one of the Muaupoko tribe. Later, other branches started and there is now a Muaupoko District Council, with three branches. It is an active organisation, and held an attractive crafts exhibition last January at the Agricultural and Pastoral Show at Levin. The Kawiu branch has a full programme: they have Mrs Taueki, who teaches the younger people the Maori language; all meetings are held in that language, and the secretary, Mrs McMillan, told Te Ao Hou she always writes the minutes in Maori, in which she is now quite experienced. They also have an arrangement with other branches to help each other with the entertainment of visitors.

These women have a keen enthusiasm for the Maori crafts. They must be spending most of their time thinking about the moment they can get back to that dining-hall with some flax.

This enthusiasm is partly, no doubt, due to the force of the Welfare League movement, but at least as much to the wonderful inspiration of Polly. Polly, or to give her real name, Parekohatu Tihi, is a direct descendant of Major Kemp. She is a real artist, whose hands are never happy unless they are making something beautiful. Now she has reached a fine old age, and does little other than weaving. Her great aim is to weave the mats for the new meeting-house. The other ladies collect and prepare the flax for her, and with no care for her weariness, she works at them all day. One large mat takes her a fortnight, which would be quick work for a much younger woman, and her patterns are always, flawless, regular and harmonious.

Yet Polly believes in the forty-hour week. She starts work every morning immediately after breakfast. At five o'clock she says: ‘It is time to knock off now.’

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At the beginning of this year Polly began to show the younger generation — the league members — the secrets of her craft. Her desire to preserve the knowledge and craft of her ancestors was as strong as the desire of the younger ones to learn. Two days of each week are set aside for Polly to teach the others; the women arrive after breakfast and continue until ten in the evening. Those who are already skilled workers cook meals for the families.

Polly teaches all the flax crafts. Since January, the ladies have not only learnt how to make mats and baskets, but also piupiu and korowai, and they have held a taniko competition. They have already mastered the simpler parts of these crafts, but when complicated patterns have to be woven in mats, they still sometimes need Polly.

In the accompanying photographs Polly herself demonstrates the making of a simple mat.

MAKING MATS

No better description of mat-making could be given than that by Te Rangihiroa, published in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute in 1923. We present below brief notes on each of the photographs printed in this issue. In these notes we quote extensively from the late Sir Peter Buck's work.

1.The leaf is split into strips: ‘The margins and midrib of the leaf are first split off with the thumb-nail. The two half-blades freed by the removal of the midrib are held together with the left hand while the right thumb-nail splits them into even widths, As the thumb-nail worked across the blade from right to left, forefinger and middle finger followed through the openings made. Holding the butt end of the blade with the left hand, the right fingers are simply drawn along the blade to the tip, and completely separate all the divisions. Holding the mid-part of the blade with the freed hand (as in the picture), the fingers of the left hand were slipped between the divisions, and ran them down to the butt junction.’

2.The Beginning: Polly follows a common method of beginning, in using unsplit butt portions. The butts have not the full width of the leaf; most of them have four strips attached.

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Mrs Parekohatu Tihi weaving a mat

3. Weaving: This is similar to the weaving process in baskets, described in the Summer issue of Te Ao Hou. ‘When the butt ends of the strips (whenu) have been fixed in a straight line, the strips lie parallel to one another. The strips are now crossed diagonally over each other so that alternate strips lie in the same direction. Those leaning towards the right are called “dextral” strips and those towards the left “sinistral”. The plaiting of the strips is not done singly, but in a series. Two dextral strips at a time are lifted up with the left hand (see picture) and the right hand picks up and slips the appropriate sinistral strip along the space between the dextral strips that are held up and those that are lying flat. The dextral strips that were lifted up are now dropped and those that were lying flat are picked up in their turn. The next sinistral strip is now passed between.” The action is then repeated.

4. Note the position of the left foot which steadies the work. The pattern of the mat is now clearly visible. It is a ‘twilled two’ (rangarua), resulting from two dextral strips being used to one sinistral.

5. Before moving from one part of the work to another, a loop is made to hold the working edge.

6. Finishing off (tapiki): ‘The mat is turned over so that the finish may not be seen on the upper surface. When the mat is in its normal position, the dextral strips form the upper layer and the sinistrals the lower. On turning the mat, the sinistrals form the upper layer, but they now lean towards the right, while the lower layer of dextrals lean towards the left. To avoid confusion it is now better to call the upper layer the dextral and the lower sinistral.’

Let us describe now how to turn the sinistral S1 and the Dextral D1 (shown in figure) back into the body of the mat. ‘It will be noted that D1 passes under S1. It is then twisted over at right angles to its own course, and laid along the course of S1. D1 is now fixed down by dropping D2 across it in its normal course. The turning operation is completed by doubling back S1 over D2 to lie over the turned-back portion of D1, and along its own course.’

7. The mat is then turned the right way up to show the finish.

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The hand of the artist. Photos: John Ashton