Research on Māori clothing dyes could reveal garments' origin

New findings help to trace origins of treasured garments stored in museums.

Research into customary Māori clothing dyes could help uncover the provenance of garments worn in pre-European Aotearoa and reconnect them with the wearers’ descendants.

The origin of more than 90 percent of the taonga kākahu (treasured garments) stored in museums is not known, said Dr Rangituatahi Te Kanawa (Ngāti Maniapoto), who has recently completed her PhD in Museum and Heritage Studies at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

Dr Te Kanawa worked as a textile conservator at Te Papa for 20 years and her PhD research involved reproducing clothing dyes using traditional techniques.

Deterioration of the dyed black fibre in early kākahu was the impetus for her research. This deterioration was caused by the iron-tannate dye, a mix of tannins and iron-rich mud.

Dr Te Kanawa collected samples of iron-rich mud from different geographical locations and, using traditional techniques, dyed the muka (flax fibre) black. She was able to differentiate by colour value (or hue) between various locations.

The iron-rich mud (paru) collected from her family site in the central west North Island gave a blue black, while on the east coast a red black was found.

Dr Te Kanawa hopes the research will not only help establish where a garment was from, but revitalise customary techniques and contribute to the conservation and display of Māori textiles.

While there has been a resurgence in Māori weaving, there is a tendency to use modern materials that are readily available in craft stores, she said. Few weavers or researchers are employing customary weaving techniques and material processing methods such as dying with paru.

She said her research will contribute to the identification of material resources and processes for weavers.

“I’d like to promote the use of traditional practices and resourcing materials, and build a knowledge base of cultural practices, reconnecting to Te Taiao (the natural world) and indeed Te Ao Māori (the Māori world).”

Dr Te Kanawa is from a family of traditional weavers. Her late mother, Dr Diggeress Rangituatahi Te Kanawa, and late grandmother, Dame Rangimārie Hetet, were both recognised for their contribution to Māori weaving traditions.

Her PhD was supervised by Professor Conal McCarthy, director of the museum and heritage studies programme at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.