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Maori Weaving, Mats, Baskets and Plaiting...

Plaiting: Floor mats, sleeping mats, baskets and other accessories formed a necessary part of the household equipment in tropical Polynesia and in temperate New Zealand. In Polynesia, the raw materials were coconut and pandanus leaves and in New Zealand, the indigenous flax formed a stronger and more durable substitute material.


The various types of articles were manufactured by the technique of plaiting. Plaiting and weaving are distinct crafts though many ethnologists still use the term weaving as if it were a synonym of plaiting. The error is due to both crafts using a process of interlacing two sets of soft elements to form what may be regarded as a textile but the methods of obtaining the results are different.

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In weaving, the elements are divided into two classes termed warps and wefts, another less-used term for weft being woof. All the warp elements, composed of yarn or threads, are set up vertically or horizontally for the full width of the proposed textile. The warps are divided at their upper or near ends into two alternating sets, alternate singles for a check pattern or alternate groups of more than one for patterns termed twill.

Along the shed formed by diverging the two sets of warps, a single weft thread is passed from side to side at right angles to the warps. The two sets of warps are crossed over the weft to enclose it and to form another shed for the next turn of the weft.

By successive crossings of the warps over the single turns of the weft, the textile proceeds along its full width until the required length is attained. In more primitive forms of weaving, as opposed to loom weaving, the weft may consist of two or more threads which necessitate different methods of interlacing with the warps.

In plaiting, all the elements needed are fixed along a commencement edge from which they are directed obliquely towards the right and towards the left so as to form crossing elements. As the weaving terms of warp and weft are not suitable, it is better to drop the term warp and term all the elements wefts, those inclined towards the right being dextrals and those towards the left, sinistrals. The crossings of the wefts are oblique to the commencement edge but there is a form of plaiting in which the crossings are at right angles to the commencement edge.


Plaiting Technique

The description of plaiting technique is difficult because, apart from the study involved, the text must be supplemented with line drawings in order that the technical details may be understood and differences appreciated. In Polynesia the raw material, provided by coconut and pandanus leaves imposed differences in technique owing to the nature of the material.

As plaiting is a very old craft, it may be assumed that the early settlers of New Zealand brought with them a knowledge of plaiting as applied to coconut leaves and pandanus leaves. Lacking these two plants, the nearest substitute materials in New Zealand were the indigenous nikau palm and the Phormium tenax popularly termed flax.

In plaiting any object, a number of problems have to be solved beyond the mere technique of interlacing crossing elements. In the simplest object such as a mat, the first problem consists of making a start with a commencement edge. As plaiting proceeds from left to right, the commencement usually involves the formation of the left corner, part of the left edge, and the continuation of the commencement or bottom edge.

The plaiting is continued with an oblique working edge formed by a number of working dextrals which enclose a sinistral weft. The dextrals are separated into two alternating sets by picking up some wefts with the left hand and leaving the others down. In the form of plaiting termed check, every other dextral is picked up and in twill plaiting, the dextrals are picked up in alternate twos or whatever the twill is to be.

The lifting of one set of dextrals forms a shed between the up and the down wefts. The next sinistral is picked up by the right hand and placed in the shed to rest on the down set of dextrals. The raised dextrals are laid across the sinistral in the shed to become the down set and the previous down set is raised by the left hand.

This completed movement not only encloses the sinistral in the shed but forms a new shed for the next sinistral. Each movement to the right brings in a fresh dextral at the lower end of the working edge and consequently the top working dextral must be dropped to keep the number of working dextrals the same throughout, eight being a convenient number.

By keeping an even number, the section of plaiting retains the same depth and the upper edge continues straight. In function, the dextral weft resembles the warp in weaving and the sinistral weft, as it is laid in the shed, resembles the weft in weaving.

When the working section reaches the right end of the midrib strip, tie problem is to form the right edge or border. The technique is similar to that of the left edge but in reverse. It is the free ends of the dextrals which project and as they reach the right edge, they are folded over at right angles to continue the edge and the parts turned back now function as sinistrals.

In plaited sheets for roof thatch, the leaflet ends at the far edge are left free but in mats used as screens, the free ends on the far edge are plaited into a three-ply braid which forms the finishing edge of the mat.

In using pandanus, the wide leaves are split into a number of single strips and the problem is thus created of providing a technique which will fix dextral and sinistral wefts in a lower commencement edge. However, as plaiting must still proceed from left to right, the left corner and a part of the left edge must also be defined before the plaiting can work towards the right.

Palm-Leaf Baskets

In Polynesia, different types of useful baskets are made of coconut leaf. The commonest type in the Cook Islands, termed a tapora, is made of a section of leaf midrib with the leaflets intact on each side. The open leaflets on one side are plaited in check to the required depth with a working edge of six to eight dextrals, but the projecting free sinistrals on the left and free dextrals on the right are not turned in to form side edges as in mats.

The leaflets on the other side are plaited similarly. The two sides are brought together and the free leaflets from either side at the ends project naturally as sinistrals and dextrals. These are plaited together to close the gaps at each end to an even depth with the sides. With the midrib below, the two plaited sides are brought together so that each edge with the free leaflet ends forms a line.

Starting at the far end, the craftswoman plaits those leaflets inclined towards her in a three-ply braid by taking a weft alternately from either side, the leaflets pointing away from her being left out. On completing the first braid course, the basket ends are reversed so that the end of the braid is at the far end and the remaining free leaflet ends now point towards the plaiter.

The braid end is doubled over and a second course completed by alternately including a free leaflet from either side in the braid. At the end, the braid is continued as a free tail and stopped with an overhand knot. The two-course braid closes the bottom of the basket securely and the midrib is then split to open the basket, the split midrib on either side forming the rim.
Another type of basket is made from a split coconut-leaf strip twice the length of the basket and with the leaflets on one side only. The leaflets are plaited in a continuous sheet but the projecting leaflets at either end are left free. The two ends of the sheet are brought together and the free leaflets are plaited to close the end.

The sides of the plaiting are brought together and the bottom closed with the two-course braid technique used in the tapora basket. The open rim has already been defined by the continuous midrib strip. Other types of improved coconut-leaf baskets are also made.

It may be assumed, again, that the early Maori settlers applied the coconut-leaf technique to the nikau palm before flax became established as the standard material. It is to be expected also that flax was so superior that the use of nikau was abandoned except under circumstances where flax was not procurable.

Such a condition applied in bush country and I was told at Koriniti on the Whanganui River that bird-hunting parties actually did make baskets out of nikau leaf in the forests of the interior. Fortunately a specimen preserved in the Dominion Museum was figured and thus described by Hamilton:

"One [basket] is very ingeniously made from the leaves of the Nikau palm (Rhopalostylis). The midrib being split, forms the upper edge of the basket."

From the illustration and the above description, it is evident that the Maori up to recent times occasionally made a basket from a section of nikau leaf by the same technique that the Cook Islanders made a tapora basket from a section of coconut leaf. Insignificant as the nikau leaf basket may appear as compared with the more durable flax basket, it forms an important technical link with the past.

Flax Baskets

The early settlers in substituting flax for nikau leaf lost the advantage of the midrib commencement and had to find a method for combining the individual flax wefts into some other form of commencement edge. The problem was solved in the same way as in the flax mats by using a braid commencement. The scraped butt ends of the wefts were plaited into a three-ply braid, but with this difference, the wefts were added alternately on each side. On reaching the required length of the basket, the braid was secured by an overhand knot. The braid (whiri) thus reached the opening stage of the coconut-leaf midrib with its bilateral leaflets.

The body of the basket was plaited to the desired depth by the same technique used with coconut-leaf baskets. However, as the commencement braid could not be split to form a rim opening, it had to remain as the bottom of the basket. Consequently, the continuous edge where the plaiting ceased had to form the rim. The free weft ends, both sinistral and dextral, were plaited in a three-ply braid which fixed the plaiting edge and formed a finished rim.

Baskets made of green flax by the process described were used for carrying food of various kinds and served all the purposes of coconut-leaf baskets in Polynesia but they were much stronger and lasted longer. A superior type of basket is made of flax prepared in the same way as for sleeping mats. They correspond to the Polynesian baskets made of pandanus.

The mats and baskets made of green flax have spaces between the wefts owing to shrinkage by drying, but the sleeping mats and baskets made of treated flax do not shrink and the wefts remain in close contact at their edges. Both flax and pandanus baskets are plaited in a sheet of the required depth and the ends joined as in the coconut-leaf baskets made with a split midrib.

The plaiting forms a complete cuff with free weft ends at the upper and lower edges. The cuff is turned inside out and the free weft ends at the lower edge plaited together either as a braid or some form of tapiki finish. In others again, the butt ends of the wefts are scraped and the braid commencement of green flax baskets is used.

The upper edge of the plaiting is finished off as is the rim by a number of techniques such as a three-ply braid (whiri toru), four-ply braid (whirl tuamaka) the sleeping mat finish (tapiki), and a serrated edge (whakakitaratara), which are described in my paper on plaiting.

These techniques with the exception perhaps of the four-ply braid are used in Polynesia with pandanus baskets. Many of the Maori techniques have yet to be described in detail. After finishing the basket, it is turned inside out again so that the cut-off ends in some of the finishes do not show on the outside.

The handles of the baskets are formed of plaited loops, one on the middle of each side. Some green flax baskets are provided with a number of loops along the braid rim on each side which are used for lacing the top of the basket when filled to overflowing capacity.

A very useful plaited article was made for containing cooked food, enough for one or two guests. It was made with wide wefts of unsplit half blades of flax. It is named kono or rourou and takes the place of the raurau food containers of central Polynesia which were made of coconut leaflets.

Other Plaited Material

Many other useful objects were made from flax by plaiting. On the East Coast, wide plaited bands (paepae umu) of green flax were made to place around the circumference of the oven to keep food from straggling over the edge.

On the West Coast, oven bands were made of bundles of narrow flax strips plaited into a thick three-ply braid. Rectangular fire fans (piupiu ahi) were plaited for fanning the fire, but fans for fanning the face were never made. Formerly, warriors wore belts (tatua) which were plaited wide enough to be doubled along their length.

Sandals (paraerae) were plaited with flax and plaited carriers (kawe) resembling swag straps were made to carry burdens on the back. Triangular sails (ra, mamaru) were formerly made for ocean-going canoes and a good specimen has been preserved in the British Museum. These various articles have been described by me at greater length elsewhere.

Decoration

Decoration in plaiting was effected by changing the stroke from check to twill and simple geometric effects were produced by altering the number of wefts crossed in the twilled technique from the two usually to five. Further decoration was obtained by dyeing some wefts black. As foundation wefts, the black wefts had to continue on their oblique course to where they ended at a join.

The only other native colour to black, used in plaiting, was yellow obtained by using wefts of pingao, the leaves of which are a natural yellow. The reddish brown dye used in weaving was not used in plaiting probably because it did not take well with unscutched flax.

Some change in the appearance of small fancy satchels was obtained by using thin layers of bark from the houhi or ribbon-wood. In these, rosettes and tassels were formed but the idea was late European.

A form of small satchel suitable as a handbasket for women was made from scutched flax fibre by the process of weaving either by the two-pair interlocking technique or by the taniko method. These satchels were decorated along the end and bottom edges with a fringe of white flax fibre.

The use of European trade dyes widened the field of decoration for those craftswomen manufacturing for trade, but the over use of new colours such as green and purple was not pleasing as compared with the older designs in black and white.

However, the overdecorated articles were readily bought by the pakeha, notwithstanding, and hence stimulated a trade which was responsible for a variety of designs not previously known.

Local Development

From the preceding descriptions, it is apparent that the ancestors of the Maori brought the principles of the coconut-leaf and pandanus-leaf techniques with them to New Zealand. They were applied to nikau leaves and flax and eventually flax became the staple material for plaiting.

Certain adjustments had to be made because of the different nature of flax material. The scraping of the ends of the flax wefts to facilitate the braid commencement of green flax mats and baskets was a local development. The change from the overlapping join of Polynesia to the double fringed join of New Zealand was due primarily to the difference between pandanus and flax.

The simple overlapping join was found to be insecure with the stiffer flaxen wefts and so the join was made more secure by turning back the ends of the old wefts with a technique adapted from the established process of disposing of weft ends at the finishing edge.

The braid finish was probably the original technique used with green flax. It was retained in the tapora oven covers, but in floor mats, the tapiki finish was probably borrowed from the sleeping mats. The main problems of plaiting had been solved before the Maori ancestors left Polynesia, but certain adjustments were necessitated by the change in material.

Acculturation

The craft of plaiting, once so vitally important, has lost much of its value. The plaited sails of seagoing canoes disappeared early as ocean transport along the coasts ended. Leather shoes replaced plaited sandals, and plaited war belts ceased to be of use.

Food and firewood formerly carried by plaited burden carriers on the backs of human beings are now transported in wheeled vehicles drawn by introduced quadrupeds. The plaited oven along the coasts ended. Leather shoes replaced plaited sandals, and plaited kono receptacles for serving food have been largely forgotten through the adoption of crockery.

The articles which linger on are mats and baskets. In country districts, the plaited floor mats have not yet succumbed to linoleum and woven carpets, and the tribal meeting houses still demand an equipment of takapau sleeping mats as the correct covers for the floor space on either side of the median passage.

The green flax baskets still remain the best receptacles for gathering in the root crops and for other purposes. The better class of basket, once used for holding clothes and other property, has given way to wooden chests and suit cases. Even the smaller kits in which an older generation of women carried their pipe, tobacco, and matches have given way to the leather or cloth handbags in which a younger generation carry their cigarettes, lighter, handkerchief, and makeup necessities.

Yet even now, the manufacture of sleeping mats has dwindled to certain districts. At Koriniti in 1921, the older women who were demonstrating plaiting to me complained that the teen-age girls who were trying to assist, could not split the flax leaves into wefts of even width.

They shook their heads with forebodings of the future. Thus the rough mats and baskets will be replaced by trade substitutes as the younger generation of women become more and more absorbed in pakeha activities which will leave them with less and less time to learn and to devote to the ancient but now out-of-date craft of plaiting.