Thursday, 17 October 2013

'Three plain coats of the flax plant'

As discussed in a previous blog post, the Cook-voyage collections at the Pitt Rivers contain many Maori taonga or treasures.  I have been examining some of the textile taonga, in particular a kakahu (cloak) collected by the Forsters, 1886.1.1133.  Number 106 in the 'Catalogue of Curiosities given to Oxford' it is described as one of 'Three plain coats of the flax plant, two with dogskin at the corners'

The first step in being able to describe how a kakahu is made involves developing the correct vocabulary.  I've been following the terms used in the excellent book 'Whatu Kakahu/Maori Cloaks' edited by Awhina Tamarapa and published by Te Papa Press in 2011, as well as many other references to help me to describe the way that kakahu were made.

The term 'weaving' to describe the process of making a kakahu can be misleading.  They were made by weft-twining, a process in which two 'weft' threads (aho) are twisted around each other, enclosing 'warp' threads (whenu) as they twist.  No loom is involved, and the process is done entirely by hand.

Forster 106, 1886.1.1133.  The white triangles indicate the ends of the short weft rows, poka, used to shape the cloak

Forster 106 is a small kaitaka (a cloak with a fine undecorated foundation, edged with a border, normally of taniko, a decorative weft-twining technique developed only by the Maori.)  The kaitaka is of muka, the fibres extracted from the New Zealand flax plant (Phormium sp.)  The aho is made up of single pairs of threads (single-pair weft-twining - whatu aho patai).  There are shaping rows inserted into the weft.  These short rows - poka - allowed the cloak to hang gracefully over the body.

The foundation of the cloak, showing single-pair weft-twining (the horizontal fibres).  The end of one of the shaping rows is also visible.

The cloak is very finely made.  There are eight whenu warps per centimeter, and the spacing between the aho warps is only three or four millimeters. The cloak is is excellent condition, even after 250 years, and the flax fibre is still soft and lustrous.

The plain part of the border on this kaitaka is not taniko, but very closely packed rows of single-pair twining, creating a thick, dense fabric.  However, the patterned areas at the top and bottom of the border do appear to have been created using taniko techniques, where two colours are used in the twining process, with the colour not in use being hidden inside the wrapped threads.

The border of the cloak, showing the patterned edge, and the plaited finish.  A short fringe of whenu warp fibres also is visible.

Small tags of dog skin are attached to the cloak along both edges of the border.  A cord made from twisted muka has been threaded through the body of the cloak and looped around the strips to hold them - this possibly would have required the use of a needle, which would probably have been made of bird bone.

Dog skin tag, showing the method of attachment.

A fine cloak such as this would have been a prized garment, imbued with the mana of both its creator and its wearer.  Kaitaka were garments of prestige, worn to stress the importance of an event.

I am not an expert in Maori fibre techniques, but I hope that by documenting these taonga and sharing that information on the new Cook-Voyage collections website, people with more knowledge might be able to contribute to our understanding of these important cloaks.