New Zealand flax is known for its role in tradition, durability, decorative aspects and, medicinal values.
Flax is a durable fibre traditionally used for weaving clothes and other utensils. Today old techniques are often used for decorative parts in travel gifts.
Flax grows plentiful along the east and west coast beaches of Auckland City and in many other parts of New Zealand. The phormium tenax, New Zealand flax is home to swamps and wetlands while phormium cookianum occurs in coastal and mountainous areas. Both have many varieties differing in leaf size, length and colour with blossoms in shades of yellow to deep orange. Today they found their home in many kiwi and overseas gardens for their tough, evergreen, and decorative qualities. During their blooming period in early summer they are often feeding ground for tui birds.
On many family festivals sharing the art of weaving flax is a signature of the New Zealand multicultural community. Fun With Flax gives step by step instructions about cutting flax and simple objects with easy to follow instructions on first weaving experiences.
The beginning of Raranga – the art of flax weaving is closely connected to Maori migration and their history in arts and crafts. Coming from a warmer region, realising that known resources were strange to their new homeland so that Maori people had to become creative.
Employing their knowledge about weaving the harakeke/ flax variations offered a wealth of robust fibres. With different lengths, colours, and softness the right leaf could be selected to shape various daily utensils for lasting use or one time use. Maori clothing like skirts, cloaks, rain cloaks, and baskets for gathering, berries, shells or mats, ropes and tools for fishing were created. Soon their weaving technique evolved from satisfying purely functional needs to create highly valued and decorative items.
Different New Zealand flax plants were cultivated close to pa sites/ settlements in plantations to grant a steady supply of the best fibres for each task at hand.
In Maori tradition many actions follow a certain protocol – tikanga. So does the harvest and weaving of harakeke. Tikanga instructs about time, weather and wind conditions including who and how as well as the amount to be taken. The treatment of harvested leaves and surplus material is also included. The protocol too, advices on how to conduct started work and what to do with the first crafted and finished object.
Over time various parts of harakeke plants gained value for their beneficial properties in regards to medical disorders.
With the Maori urbanisation old wisdom and skills were forgotten. Later in the twentieth century traditional crafts experienced a come back. In present time harakeke weaving holds a central position in Maori cultural identity. In consequence flax weaving rose to new heights and finds its presence more and more often in contemporary arts and crafts.
In the mid of the 19th century New Zealand flax became increasingly of commercial interest to European rope producer and advanced to a major export article. Around 1930 the production expanded to bind woolpacks until replacement through synthetic fibres in the seventies. The flax industry witnessed an end under this process.
With today’s newly gained heights harakeke gained use in travel gifts as this artistic approach to the Three Ketes of Wisdom shows. A symbolic piece of art referring to the three ketes sent from heaven as help to humanity in times of misery. Each holds a different aspect of knowledge though the aspect may vary according to the source telling the story.