Harakeke Weaving School
‘He kakano i ruia mai …’ The seed was sown … four years ago, following my chance meeting and continued association with craftswomen who were in the throes of forming a New Zealand Chapter of the World Craft Council; craftswomen well established in their own work—Nan Berkeley, ceramics and pottery; Dorothea Turner, spinning and weaving; Jenny Pain, whose specialty is the designing and screen printing of fabrics. I wish you could see their work. These women—and others in their groups—had long been aware of the absence from their midst of Maori crafts and crafts-people. Then, as I said, by chance we met and I became the bridge between their work and ours.
Each of these women is also involved in teaching her craft to any one who is keen and enthusiastic; and they convinced me that I too should take up the torch and light the way to Harakeke Weaving School.
Circulars went out in February to spread the idea and sound out interest within Arts and Crafts circles; other people heard of my plans and telephoned for further information, until eventually over a hundred notices were posted. By July 31, my file held 25 definite enrolments for August 1968, plus 12 starters for a May 1969 school if one could be arranged. An article on the school published in the ‘Dominion’, brought in further enquiries, to bring the 1969 waiting list up to 24. There was also a letter asking if a school could be arranged at Waipukurau.
The enrolments came from a wide range of people and places: Commercial teachers at Wellington Polytech; a retired doctor from Rotorua, fabric weavers, a Wellington City Councillor, a young Rarotongan woman who will one day soon return to teach in the Cook Islands; a Pakeha Welfare Officer with the Department of Maori Affairs; secretaries, home-makers for busy professional men, a Continental woman whose line is fine embroidery; darling, elderly Miss Elizabeth Matheson, a potter of long standing, who had waited more than fifty years for this opportunity to learn flax weaving; and the baby of the class was 17-year-old Lesley Dalley who hopes to enter Teachers' Training College next year. Who knows, but our Harakeke School may point the way for her to specialise in Arts and Crafts, thus following in the steps of our tutor.
By good fortune, Cath Brown of Christ-church was ready, willing and free to come in August to teach us. We first met at the Dominion Conference of the Maori Women's Welfare League held at Dunedin in 1963, when she gave a most impressive demonstration of Maori Arts and Crafts. Originally from Taumutu, on the shores of
Lake Ellesmere, and of Ngaitahu, Cath Brown has been Craft Instructor with the Canterbury Education Department for about ten years now, and for us, she was an excellent teacher.
For our meeting place, I looked for an outsized room with tea-making facilities handy; and with further thought for creature comforts I hoped that central heating would be available—just in case it should turn cold! Well, we had all this and more at St. Mark's Church School opposite the Basin Reserve, Wellington. More, did I say? Yes, indeed. The entrance was through a large cloak-room with a concrete floor, ideal for storing our flax damp to keep it supple; and the playing area provided oodles of car-parking space. We were cosy indeed.
Now, the burning question of where to find flax enough to teach 25 people how to harvest it for the task in hand? The suggestion came to ring the caretaker of Queen Elizabeth Park, Paekakariki, and ask for permission to use the flax there. The answer was a friendly and helpful ‘Yes’. So, off to Paekakariki, to see how the land lay; and to be overwhelmed by the sight of grassy dales and undulating hills completely flax-covered—truly, a delightful spot.
Our opening day, Monday 26 August, dawned fine, sunny and warm and gave us a good start. Class members turned up bright and cheery, filling the room with an air of keen expectancy. Friends and well-
Canon Hohepa Taepa opened our school with prayers, followed by a short address which dovetailed beautifully with the tutor's lecture, ‘Flax in the eye of the Maori Weaver’, and with her first words, school was IN.
Before long, off came her shoes and she got down to the business of demonstrating the basic points and explaining techniques while she deftly made a small working mat after the style of a hangi cover. We soon saw that a foot served as a third hand to hold the flax strips in position, leaving both hands free to weave. With the aid
of diagrams on the blackboard, Cath Brown explained how to cut the flax from the bush, the aim being that each member should cut enough to last her the whole week; and it was hoped that while at Paekakariki, we would have time to each make our own working mat.
End of lecture meant time for early lunch, where we pooled our provisions for a communal meal and thus set the pattern for the week. Haere mai, tatou katoa—kia ako tahi, kia mahi tahi (Come, let us learn together, work together)—so ran the caption on the enrolment form; and with little bidding, we added … meal together.
Our bus came and we were all aboard and ready to go at the time appointed—12.15 p.m. We arrived to find Queen Elizabeth Park bathed in sunshine and consequently went into the harvest with great vigour. More than ample flax was cut; all mats were started and most completed before we returned to St. Mark's to store our supply. Then home we went, weary but fired with enthusiasm.
The enrolment form stated also: aim: to acquire the basic skills. goal: Proficiency in weaving (a) tipare (b) kono (c) kete. We slowly fumbled our way from (a) to (b), much surprised to discover that these seemingly simple articles were not easy to make. Furthermore, we were to prove only too true the tutor's reiteration that in the easy manipulation of the flax strips in kono-making lies the knack of flax weaving.
Then followed the more complicated preparation for kit making, the stripping from the broad blade of half-inch wide strips with tufts of fibre at their base. A whale of a lot of practice is required for the success of this tricky operation, my word! Saturday, the last day, found us tussling with grim determination to put our kits into reasonable shape and complete them. A few had only to join in the second handle and finish off the plaited edge at home; and so ended the last lesson.
And a hard week's weaving we had had indeed!
It says much for the worth of it all that 19 were there to the end. We sorted out the articles completed and smiled like Cheshire cats at our efforts. We left the school with a sense of personal satisfaction and achievement and sustained enthusiasm. For both tutor and organiser, there was encouragement and confidence to plan another school for 1969.
He aha te hua …? What fruit …?
The immediate and very heartening results was that two members announced they would be ‘AT HOME to FLAX WEAVING CLASS'—every Wednesday at Mrs Hutchinson's, Khandallah, and every Thursday at Mrs Agar's, Stokes Valley. ‘Bring your bundle of flax and we shall spend the afternoon revising our lessons, helping each other and getting in some much-needed practice.’
Six people turned up at Khandallah on 11 September and I have been shown one of the baskets that was completed at that session.
It seems appropriate to end by telling you that the ‘first fruit’ was a basket—kete tatahi, 36 inches in length (to fit the proportions of the Wellington Town Hall!)—that suited the requirements of the author and the producer so well that, four days after the school closed, there was our basket, filled with vegetables, on the verandah of Mr Paku's house in the opening scene of Bruce Mason's play, ‘Awatea’.