My mother taught me how to weave flax when I was 24. Initially I was interested to learn a practical skill but I've been weaving for more than 35 years now. For me, flax weaving became a spiritual journey, one that is about both the land and the environment, and about Māori culture.
The Māori term for a flax weaver is “kai mahi raranga”. When I started weaving there were not many kai mahi raranga and I have enjoyed being part of a resurgence. There are many more weavers now. As a pākeha [a New Zealander of European heritage] I feel honoured to be accepted into an indigenous craft, as a maker and a tutor. My heritage is to a different culture - I am a fourth generation Kiwi, my family arrived here around 1880 - so being included is special to me.
Raranga [weaving] is part of my week, every week. I enjoy the whole process, from initially going out into nature to harvest the flax, through to preparation and the eventual creation of a kete.
The kind of flax we use is indigenous to New Zealand. It's different to the flax found in the northern hemisphere. It can be found everywhere, from the edges of the ocean to the sides of the mountains. Its Māori name is harakeke. Botanically it is a lily. There are many varieties of flax and different types are great for different projects – such as to make flowers, or putiputi, for gifts and bridal bouquets, kete, backpacks and lots of different kinds of baskets, or korowai and kakahu which are traditional cloaks made with or without feathers.
It's important to me that the kete I make are clean and green and are not further burdening our planet. The tikanga, or cultural protocols, around raranga are important. They show respect. A karakia or prayer is said when harvesting the harakeke and to create a sacred space for its weaving.
Apart from the cultural side, it's also important to learn the correct processes when harvesting a natural fibre like this, so we can get the best results. For example, there's an optimal time to harvest as the leaf loses its moisture and is best to weave with then.
Kete can be decorative or practical. Some are made simply – what’s called “green flax” weaving, where we work with fresh harakeke. Other kete are coloured and adorned with pounamu [greenstone], feathers or other ornamentation. Kete whakairo is the more complicated style; it's often coloured and woven inside out, so you have the finishing on the inside.
When I am teaching people to weave kete, they should be fully immersed in the process, without interruptions. Weaving is based on mathematics and demanding in its structure, as it is woven across the diagonal. This can be very challenging to learn. Learners can be put off if the flax is too stiff or not suitable for the project. I would say that one of the biggest challenges is overcoming your internal critic. Be gentle with yourself and don't expect too much at the beginning! Flax weaving requires a lot of practice.
As told to Cathrin Schaer
Translated by Jess Smee