Weaving in Rarotonga

16 January 2018

Weaving is very much part of Pacific Island cultures and I was keen to see the weaving in Rarotonga when I visited recently. I was expecting to see large market baskets and hats with circular crowns woven out of green palm leaves but these were very scarce. What I did see was intriguing and quite unexpected. The main type of weaving practised now is with very fine strips of white palm leaf, sometimes dyed for patterned weaving, used to weave hats and fans.

I first saw this weaving at Punanga Nui Market, the Saturday market, where one stall had numerous hats and fans woven with these fine palm strands. Many of the hats and fans were woven in coloured patterns and all were made with very fine strips.


I then visited the shop Pacific Weave, where weaver Nanave Taime was weaving a basket with fine white strips. I wondered what the material was and how she managed to get it so white. Nanave was very happy to share her knowledge, and told me me that the material was boiled palm leaf. I knew that boiling NZ flax, the usual material I weave with, doesn’t whiten it to this extent, so I was interested to try this process for myself. Later that day I tried boiling both dry and green palm leaf but this didn’t make any difference to the colour of the leaf.


Out and about the next day, I discovered Tarani Crafts and Pearls in downtown Avarua, just past the roundabout heading towards Muri beach, and had an interesting discussion with Tarani Napa, the owner, who is very knowledgeable about traditional weaving. Tarani also has an outlet at the Saturday market.

Tarani explained that the white material is part of the new leaf, or rito, of the coconut tree before it becomes green. The new leaf is peeled apart into two different types of strands. The outer fibre is coarser and creamy light fawn and the inner fibre, which is lighter, is boiled to make it white. The strips are very thin and there’s a lot of work involved in getting enough strips to weave with. It’s mostly older weavers from the outer islands — which are covered in coconut palms and a good source for rito — who weave hats.

As I saw some evidence of what I think are earlier types of weaving, such as basic market baskets and fans, and was interested in discovering how the weaving style had changed over time to a more intricate and delicate style. I wonder if this is partly due to the influence of missionaries, as the white hats and fans are often worn for church-going. I searched in the Rarotongan library and museum for information about this but found nothing. If anyone has any more information on this change of style I’d be very interested to hear about it.

Weaving a flax planter

19 December 2016

Many people enjoy creating gifts to give to friends, family, colleagues, and strangers, rather than purchasing gifts. A gift of flax flowers as a thank you, flax containers holding home-made preserves, a little flax kete to hold a piece of jewellery, or a shredded flax tie on a parcel are all received with appreciation, from my experience.

Recently I wove a waikawa to hold some nasturtium seedlings as a gift for a fortieth birthday. The basket was made with 16 full leaves and woven with a square-base. The sides were woven up higher than the intended end height of the basket and then rolled down three times to make a firm rolled edge. A piece of hessian from the sewing kit was used to line the basket to hold the dirt in place. The basket was then filled with potting mix and the seedlings planted.

Although I used bought seedlings and potting mix, for people looking for gifts of little cost, this gift could be made at no cost, apart from your time, by using materials that are commonly found in people’s homes. The flax to weave the basket is usually a free resource, the material to line the basket can be any natural material, such as cotton or wool, that could be an old unwanted garment or towel, for example, and the seedlings could be found in any home garden. Vegetable seedlings, cacti or self-sown annuals can be easily transplanted.

Planters woven from flax don’t stay in perfect condition when left outside. The flax will fade and bleach and parts will discolour as can be seen in this pot illustrated here, which has been outside for two seasons. This container has also been squashed down which accounts for the wonky shape.

If you’d like instructions on how to weave these pots or containers, they are available in my book Weaving a Large Container from New Zealand Flax, which can be purchased directly from me.

Flax weaving for charity

31 August 2016

Eighteen people, coming from Okains Bay, Decanter Bay, Charteris Bay, Pines Beach, Loburn and Havelock as well as Christchurch, took part in our charity flax weaving workshop last Sunday. As usual for a workshop, there were beginners and experienced weavers attending, which is a great mix as experiences are shared and people help each other. Most people wove a two-cornered basket or kete and a couple of people tried their hand at the open-weave basket made with the kupenga or fishing net weave illustrated here. Later in the day people had time to make large containers.

There were three different types of splitting tools in use in the workshop, apart from awls and fingernails! Sharon’s splitting tools, which were originally used for shearing sheep, had been modified with the addition of a paua-inlaid wooden handle.

My splitting tools were made by my husband Rob using bodkins inserted into blocks of wood at equal distances. Kay’s were very original, being made from corn cob holders. Kay adjusts the distance between the prongs depending on the width of strips she requires.
In this workshop we raised over $1,000 for my 92 year-old stepmother’s only grand-daughter, who lives with the loss of her first-born son, to return to New Zealand from the UK and spend some time with her grandmother.

A number of people gave their time and contributed to help make this workshop a success: Rob Brown who helped gather flax, set up and put away the workshop tables, chairs and tools, Toby Brown who ably assisted with tutoring (his first time), Joy and Dave Bishop who made afternoon tea and helped tidy up and last but not least, Pat Talbot my lovely step-mum, who also helped with the afternoon tea.

Future workshops, which will be held to raise funds for other charities, are advertised on the Workshops page of my website. The next flax weaving workshop is 25th September 2016. Contact me to secure your place!