An article in the Christchurch Star

15 June 2007

I was interviewed recently by a reporter from the Christchurch Star newspaper, Cynthia Kepple, after I gave a couple of talks to the Canterbury Horticultural Society. The article she wrote may have some interest to readers, and Cynthia was kind enough to give me permission to post it on my blog.

Flax weaves its spell on Ali
by Cynthia Kepple, Christchurch Star, 15 June 2007

The waterfall is a frothy flow of lacy ribbonwood curls. They cascade gently down from beneath a soft framework of dainty tendrils of finely plaited flax, dyed earthy colours of green, gold, coral and a touch of blue — the palette of the New Zealand West Coast bush.
Ali and exhibition pieces

 

Waterfall is the latest work of flax weaver Ali Brown, just completed in time for Ashburton Society of Art’s annual exhibition. Ali, whose flaxworks have found homes as far afield as Scandinavia, has been weaving flax for around eight years. After many years experimenting with different crafts, she has found something especially satisfying about this medium. “I particularly like the fact that I can make something from the ground up, just by going out, picking leaves that grow on plants in my garden and making something that is useful and beautiful from them entirely by hand, without any special tools or processes.”

Her garden is in McQueens Valley, near Gebbies Pass. She and her husband grow hazelnuts, her husband has a native plant nursery and Ali herself has planted a selection of some of the 50 or so “special” flaxes, which she acquired from Landcare’s Harakeke collection. These cultivars of Phormium tenax or Harakeke, a lowland or swamp flax, were traditionally grown by Maori weavers for their leaf and fibre properties, each suited to a specific purpose ranging from baskets (kete) to floor mats and cloaks. Phormium cookianum, or wharariki, the coastal or mountain flax, is rarely used for weaving as it has softer, thinner leaves and is not as durable.

Ali, who has no Maori heritage, has picked up her weaving skills from a variety of sources. “Mainly, I learn by playing around, and also from reading books and going on courses, and talking to people who have been doing it for years,” she explains.

This latest work was inspired by well-known Maori weaver Ranui Ngarimu. “Recently I invited Ranui to my home because I knew she was looking to gather ribbonwood bark and I had a fallen ribbonwood tree. So we harvested it all and I learnt how to peel ribbonwood bark.”

Revelling in her new-found material — “ribbonwood is not readily available” she says — Ali experimented with ways to exploit its natural qualities and delicate texture, teasing it into curls by dampening it and winding it around a dowel . “I just love the way it falls and curls, and I think it goes nicely with curls of plaited flax. It’s like the long waterfalls in Arthur’s Pass,” she says of her completed exhibit.

The more you learn about this ancient craft the more it becomes obvious there is an infinite variety of options available to the weaver. “Some flax has higher fibre content, others have a longer leaf”, she explains. Some is soft and suited to weaving the plaited tendrils that seem to be her signature motif. Other cultivars are strong and “quite sculptural”. As well as the special qualities of each cultivar, flax can be treated differently once it is cut. Weaving done with very green flax will shrink as it dries, which may be desirable, depending on the project. Flax strips can also be boiled before weaving to “pre shrink” the strips, which means the weaving will be tighter. Boiled and dried strips can also be stored indefinitely. Then there is colour, which becomes paler as flax dries.

And no, those vibrantly coloured phormium cultivars we are so proud of in our gardens are not usually used for weaving, although they can be used for smaller items such as woven flowers (which Ali says are becoming popular as wedding bouquets) and for highlights in woven works. Boiled flax will dry to a paler colour after weaving, and won’t darken if it is remoistened during the process. Flax takes well to dyeing though, and natural and chemical dyes are readily available and easy to use — and Ali has used them to great effect to add that rich burst of drama in Waterfall.

Beachwalk flaxworkAli specialises in one-off often whimsical pieces, which she sells through several galleries including Cave Rock at the Arts Centre, and a gallery in Wellington. “I like the creative art of weaving,” she says. “I get inspiration from nature and the flax has its own character.”

But there’s another side to flax weaving, too. “There’s something about the rhythm of weaving that, once one tunes into it, is very satisfying. Participants in my workshops have commented on how therapeutic flax weaving is, and I think there might be something in this,” she says.

Flax weaving is a skill that is increasingly attracting attention. Ali’s monthly workshops are very popular, as is her informative, beautifully illustrated website, which includes historical information and her take on Maori protocol, as well as instructions for cutting, preparing, weaving and dyeing flax. It has attracted interest from around the world, with one woman coming from Israel to attend a workshop and a long-distance phone call from an interested viewer in England. To take a peek for yourself visit: www.alibrown.co.nz.

33 Responses to “An article in the Christchurch Star”

  1. Karrie Says:

    I would really appreciate any instructions you could send me re: basket weaving, Its a very ingenius craft. Thank you in advance.

  2. Ali Says:

    Hi Karrie
    As you may have seen from the post “Flowers for Oscar”, I am working on a booklet that has instructions on how to make 12 flax flowers. I will add you to my email list of people who would like to purchase this booklet. Otherwise have a look at the Reviews page on this website. There are quite a few books listed there with weaving instructions in them.

  3. Marian Says:

    Ali, I just loved your work, have made Kete, Putiputi and star for gift wrapping.
    Please add my name to list for people who would like to buy your booklet on making 12 flax flowers.
    Article in Christchurch Star was inspiring. I also have no maori heritage and just love weaving flax it is relaxing and educational. Happy 2008 to all for flax weaving.

    Thanking you, Marian

  4. Ali Says:

    Hi Marian, Thanks for your comments. I’ve added your name to the list of people wanting the flower booklet.

  5. Shelley-Anne Says:

    Hi Ali

    I am another who would like to know when your book is out please, both for myself and a friend who is very interested and clever with flax.
    Thank you for freely sharing information on your site, it is very encouraging and very kind.

  6. Marian Harber Says:

    Hi Ali,
    Will look forward to notification of book. Joined my first class of flax weaving this morning. Having made a kete I wanted to learn the 4 corners, wow, just loved it and am looking forward to so much more.
    Regards Marian

  7. Cynthia McCaughan Says:

    Hi Ali,
    I attended your class at Mt Somers in March,and since coming home have made more kete and flowers. I got a book out of the library and tried the plaited base kete, but ended up pulling it undone and doing it again! (wrong number of strips - one fell out when I wasn’t looking!) I would like to get your book when it is published, so add me to your list, please.
    Great website, and a great workshop. Let me know if you have another down this way,
    cheers

    Cynthia

  8. Ali Says:

    Hi Cynthia

    It’s good to hear from you! I’m glad you enjoyed the workshop. I’ll certainly let you know when I’m down that way again.

    Making sure that the right number of strips have been added to the weaving is one thing I stress to participants in the workshops I run, as it’s easy enough to lose one, as you’ve discovered. It’s possible to weave a kete with one strip missing (the weaving keeps working around the kete in a spiral instead of going up row by row), but the problem strikes when you reach the end of the weaving. The top won’t be even and there’ll be a part where there’s a big step up from one part of the top to the next. It’s good that you perservered.

    I’ll add your name to the database for the Flower Booklet.

  9. Glynis Poad Says:

    I would be interested in purchasing your booklet - Flowers for Oscar - is it finished yet?
    Thank you and your website is great.

  10. Ali Says:

    Hi Glynis
    I’ll add your name to my database for the booklet. Check out my latest blog post “The wax in flax” for an update on it.

  11. Laureen Hancock Says:

    As i said in the e-mail earlier I am reading on and came across this .please add me to your database for your booklet

  12. Ali Says:

    Hi Laureen

    I’ve added your name to the database for the Flower Booklet and will let you know when it’s ready.

  13. Mei Says:

    Please add me to your data base for a book on putiputi. Kia Ora

  14. Huia Trollope Says:

    Hi Ali,
    Love your crafts and skills with flax. Please add me to your database for the flowers booklet too. Mum has taught me the very beginnings of weaving but living in Aussie means I need more instruction. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.
    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
    Huia.

  15. Ali Says:

    Hi Mei and Huia

    I’ve added your names to the book database.

    Huia - What part of Australia are you in? I assume you have access to flax where you are. It doesn’t seem to be available in all areas of Australia.

  16. Ellen Gibbs Says:

    Dear Ali
    Can you please put me on your list of people eager to buy your booklet on flax flower making
    many thanks
    Ellen

  17. Ali Says:

    Hi Ellen

    The instructions for making two types of flax rose are in my book, Weaving flowers from New Zealand flax, which I’m currently printing. I’ll let you know when the book is ready.

  18. Tere Says:

    Kia ora Ali, I am a raranga student at Te Wananga and as part of my research this year I am studying kete whakairo and also whariki. My focus is researching ngapuhi patterns and I was wondering if you know of any key people or information that could point me in the right direction. Any information would be most appreciated. Thank you Nana Tere

  19. Ali Says:

    Kia ora Tere

    I suggest you have a look at the Weaver profiles on the Toi Maori Aotearoa web site. There, you’ll be able to identify weavers with Nga Puhi affiliations who may be able to help you. Also several of the weavers who exhibited work in The Eternal Thread exhibition are of Nga Puhi descent so they may be able to assist you. They are profiled at the end of the book The Art Of Maori Weaving by Mariama Evans and Ranui Ngarimu which was written to coincide with The Eternal Thread exhibition. Also Mick Pendergrast, in his book Raranga Whakairo, which I’ve mentioned on my Reviews page, has identified the tribal affiliations of many of the weavers of the patterns in the book so you may be able to get information from there.

  20. Lynne Bray Says:

    Good Afternoon Ali,

    Really appreciate the time and effort you put into your works of ART, I am a beginner Raranga Weaver and already find myself totally immersed. I will remain in touch and soon hope to purchase your book.
    Kind Regards
    Lynne Bray

  21. robyn Says:

    hello again Ali,
    just wondering if you advise me as to washing or soaking hohera strips before use? I have stripped and soaked for a number of days and finally got the bark removed but in doing so have noticed some of the strips were starting to smell rather “fishy”! (not the pleasant sweet smell) - i have however dried the strips and wondered if i should wash or rinse them before starting work as they will surely smell again when dampened. Have you any suggestions with this? Thank you so much for your site and information - so very much appreciated. Robyn.

  22. Ali Says:

    Hi Robyn

    When I stripped the lace bark I changed the water every day and this seemed to keep the bark fresh. I don’t necessarily think the bark will smell when you redampen it again as long as it has been dried well. If it does smell, I would wash it again in lots of fresh water or maybe leave it in running water for a while if that’s possible for you. Let me know how you get on and I’m looking forward to seeing some photos of the finished weaving. :-)

  23. Irmgard Treanor, Dublin Says:

    Hallo there, I am writing to you from Ireland.
    We are a group of women to run a craft basar for
    charity. Quite by accident did one of us come acrossthis web site. We are facinated by flax weawing and it would be something new for our
    basar. Can you advice on a book or somthing were we could learn more about it. To come to a workshop
    would be wonderful by a little to far.
    Please help M.f.G. Irmgard Treanor, Dublin

  24. Ali Says:

    Hi Irmgard
    Check out the Book page on my web site for all the information about how to buy my book Weaving Flowers from New Zealand flax.

  25. michelle Says:

    hi, I would love to buy your book.
    where can I get it from.
    cheers

  26. Ali Says:

    Hi Michelle

    You can buy the book directly from me. All the information about buying the book is on the Book page of this web site.

  27. Caro Says:

    Kia ora Ali, I am a second year student studing raranga and as part of my research this year I am aiming to make a neinei kakahu and would like to know if you can direct me to any people that may have used this weaving resource or made this type of garment. Any help will most appreciated.
    Thank you
    Caro

  28. Ali Says:

    Kia ora Caro

    I notice that Morehu Flutey-Henare has used neinei in her kakahu Whakawhanaukataka which was exhibited in The Eternal Thread exhibition. It is pictured in the book The Art of Maori Weaving by Miriama Evans and Ranui Ngarimu, which is mentioned in the Reviews page of this web site.

    Good luck with weaving the kakahu. I’d love to see a photo when it’s completed.

  29. Vicki Says:

    Would you be able to give me more information on the waikawa and its cultural significance, I know its a large multi purpose basket woven from undressed harakeke used traditionally for storing and carrying food.

  30. Ali Says:

    Hi Vicki

    I can’t tell you much more about the waikawa than you already know. My understanding is that the traditional use is for harvesting vegetables such as potato and kumara.

  31. Eve Says:

    Hi Ali, Love all your beautiful mahi :) I have been weaving for a few years and have always used rit liquid dye to achieve vibrant rich colours. However I ordered a batch of rit liquid dyes recently from Wainhouse Distribution, and found that they would not dye the harakeke….At all. Questioning this they told me that rit has changed its formula and they have taken out a key component in the dye, so I have found this no longer works on flax. Very sad about that,as it was awesome dye. Have you found the same thing with rit dyes, and do you have any other suggestions for any other dye product that can achieve the same results?
    Thank you
    Eve

  32. Ali Says:

    Hello Eve

    No I haven’t had the same problem with Rit dyes but I have just bought some more and will be trying them in the weekend so will let you know. Teri dyes is the other dye that I use. The contact details are on the Dyeing page of this website.

  33. NZ flax weaving blog » Blog Archive » Flax weaving for gifts Says:

    […] A paua-shell kete can be very acceptable as a gift, particularly for people from other countries. It gives the recipient a taste of the culture of New Zealand, and always seems to be well received. I’ve made paua kete in several different styles, including one with a long fringe illustrated here, and a more wrapped-around version shown in my blog post An Article in the Christchurch Star, which is more compact for taking overseas. […]

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