Catherine Smith

Collaborative research and Māori textiles

March 2018. Collaborative research and Māori textiles: bringing knowledge back to source communities. Blog post by guest author Dr. Catherine Smith, invited by the Museum of Ethnography/National Museums of World Culture in Stockholm/Sweden.

Collaborative research and Māori textiles: bringing knowledge back to source communities

I visited the Ethnographic Museum of Sweden in September 2017, together with my collaborator Mrs Ranui Ngarimu, as part of a larger research project funded by the Royal Society of New Zealand (Marsden Fund UOO0414: Dressing for survival and success: What pre-European Māori wore for adaptive realisation). This project explores how the use of plants aided Pacific settlers in adapting to New Zealand through new textile and clothing forms. New Zealand was the last major landmass settled by humans, and Polynesian arrival there in the early 14th century AD was an extraordinary feat of ocean-going navigation. After arrival, Polynesians had to immediately adapt to a radically different climate and ecosystems, resulting in the emergence of distinctively Māori culture and textiles.

Since 2015, Ranui and I have been travelling to New Zealand and international collections to examine a rare type of Māori cloak, called kākahu rāranga pūputu, that represents both Pacific antecedents and the emergence of new technologies indigenous to New Zealand. These had previously been described as a defunct, probably nineteenth century AD textile form, limited to four known examples in museums. However, seven kākahu rāranga pūputu have now been located at the British Museum, London (2), the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Hawai’i (1), Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand (1), the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand (1), the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge (1) and at the Ethnographic Museum of Sweden (1). The latter two kākahu rāranga pūputu have provenance to Cook’s first voyage, and were probably collected between October 1769 and March 1770. Coupled with other evidence of pre-contact Māori garments, kākahu rāranga pūputu appear to be a now largely forgotten element of very early Māori dress. Ironically, there is greater material evidence of kākahu rāranga pūputu in international collections, than in New Zealand. The lack of physical access to these artefacts in New Zealand itself, has of course negative connotations for the maintenance of knowledge about the full scope of Māori weaving technology. Through detailed study of these kākahu, including photography and bringing together and publishing information about construction, weaving methods (selvages, joins, structure of the fabric, or kaupapa of the cloak, plant materials used) we aim to bring the knowledge contained in these textiles back to the weaving, museum and research communities of New Zealand.

The kākahu held at the Ethnographic Museum of Sweden (Image 1) relates to, and differs from, the other cloaks we have examined in a number of ways. The body, or kaupapa, of the cloak has a similar construction to others, made of joined panels (papa) of rāranga in rows of horizontal 2:2 twill. Where the papa join, added plant material is left hanging to create vibrant and luxurious external fringing. However, unlike all of the other kākahu seen, the twilled structure is made from plant fibre, rather than strips of leaf material (Image 2). The kākahu rāranga pūputu was made for a small, or young, person and has cords situated along both of the short sides of the garment for fastening it around the body.

Working collaboratively together to understand these textiles is very important to both of us. Ranui (Ngāi Tahu/Ngati Mutunga) is the senior weaver of Te Runanga o Ngāi Tahu (Image 3) the tribal group whose rohe, or tribal boundary, includes the majority of the South Island of New Zealand. She brings her in-depth and personal knowledge to this research project through her experience as a longstanding practitioner of customary Māori weaving, and has a strong interest in the replication and repair of customary garments for families and individuals. Aspects of these kākahu rāranga pūputu are complex, poorly documented and not well understood, even within the realm of customary Māori weaving practice in New Zealand. In order for the joining methods, fringing and selvages of these garments to be accurately and systematically documented, Ranui’s customary weaving expertise and experience is absolutely essential. I bring technical expertise in documenting early Māori textiles, the use of international textiles terminology to enable transfer of knowledge, and in identifying New Zealand plant materials in artefacts. Together, we explore, think and talk together, and enjoy coming to an agreed conclusion about the knowledge, technology and purpose each kākahu holds. Additionally, and most importantly, our collaborative work will result in the transfer of this knowledge back to tribal and national weaving communities in New Zealand, as well as to museum and research communities, so that we can share our learning and experiences with others.

Not only was the visit to the Ethnographic Museum of Sweden important for the opportunity to work with the kākahu rāranga pūputu, we were also able to look at the other Māori textiles in the stores, which also raised awareness of the extent of early Māori textile technologies, and provided further opportunity for knowledge transfer. We were amazed and delighted at the quality and range of Māori textiles held here. It is a constant source of surprise to us both that we can find styles of kākahu and techniques used that we haven’t seen before in New Zealand, and literally on the other side of the world. The more travel we do, and collections of kākahu we view, the more we are filled with admiration for the work of past weavers, and the diversity and creative agency of their practice and use of materials. This also speaks to the importance of experienced practitioners from source communities having access to the cultural material of their people held in European collections. Access requires understanding from European cultural institutions of the essential nature of direct physical contact between humans and objects, and also that this contact can take time: several days rather than hours.

The Māori textiles of particular note for us in the stores of the Ethnographic Museum of Sweden were a large korowai (Image 4) and a kaitaka (Image 5). According to Ranui, the korowai is of the very highest quality, seldom seen in New Zealand. The kaitaka, similarly expertly constructed, is also possibly made from an unexpected material, Cordyline sp. fibre, rather than fibre from New Zealand flax (Phormium sp.), more commonly used to construct this type of cloak. Interest in scientifically identifying the fibre used to make this kaitaka, has prompted discussions about a collaborative project with the conservators and curators of the Ethnographic Museum of Sweden, using a technique developed at the University of Otago to more accurately identify New Zealand textile fibres. We use Polarised Light Microscopy (PLM), and a suite of previously identified characteristics, to identify New Zealand plants used in artefacts (Image 6). In acknowledging the full range of materials used by weavers we also enhance our knowledge of the diversity of textile technology in the lifeways of early New Zealand.

Another largely ignored aspect of access to textiles artefacts, is the ability for researchers to see them easily in storage, particularly when they are large and unwieldy. The Ethnographic Museum of Sweden has the best cloak storage I have used for providing easy access to a large number of kākahu. The kākahu are individually housed on rigid yet light frames (Image 7) constructed from aluminium and stainless steel mesh, in storage units that are equally accessible from both sides. Because of this storage Ranui and I were able to see many textiles efficiently in a very short period of time. The trays were safely able to be pulled out on either side of the storage unit, making both top and bottom edges of the kākahu easy to see and handle. The efficacy of this storage underscored that the ability to travel across the world is not the only aspect of technology that ensures access to important Māori textiles, and the cultural knowledge contained within them.

We are both very grateful to the staff of the Ethnographic Museum of Sweden for hosting us, and not only caring for the material aspects of the Māori taonga they hold, but also for their commitment to retaining living relationships with the people for whom they are most important.


Dr Catherine Smith,
Senior Research Fellow
Dodd-Walls Centre,

University of Otago,
Dunedin, New Zealand