Reviving the ancient art of Maori cloak-making in Whitianga

16 Nov 2021

Reviving the ancient art of Maori cloak-making in Whitianga

A group of Whitianga women, led by expert weaver Deborah Phillips, are doing their bit do revive the ancient art of Maori cloak-making.

So expertly have they woven small versions of the feathered kakahu cloaks during a 12-week course at the Whitianga Social Services building in Cook Drive, that now they are trying their hand at making full-sized adult cloaks. But it is not a task for the faint-hearted, as a full-sized traditional kakahu can use up to 20,000 feathers and can take up to two years to make.

To celebrate their achievement in completing the miniature kakahu, the women, who are mostly Maori held a special morning tea at Whitianga Social Service last Thursday.

Deborah said that the eight women are now having a go at the real thing. “Once the 12 weeks are up, we are just going to keep on weaving,” she said. “It is very positive and uplifting for the women, because weaving helps us connect to our culture. We talk about anything and everything and we laugh a lot, and it is just a wonderful supportive experience.”

She said that Social Services obtained funding for the project, buying all the materials, including pheasant and chicken feathers, so that finance was not a problem for people wishing to join.

So popular has the course been that there will be another next March when more women can join the existing group of weavers, though places will be limited so those interested should contact Social Services. “We meet once a week at Whitianga Social Services and, I would think, will probably do so for years - but we might need to find somewhere bigger by then if more and more women join,” Deborah laughed.

She said that while they used traditional Te Whatu Rua weaving techniques as well as a Taaniko pattern on the cloaks, they used contemporary materials available today, such as rooster or chicken feathers and cotton.

Deborah, who has Ngati Paoa and Ngati Hine tribal affiliations, said she learned cloak-weaving from a kuia in the Far North some 18 years ago. “We weaved together for many years up North and I have had this need to share what I have learned from her, because not many people weave kakahu because it is a lost skill,” she said. “It is not hard, it is just tricky, but it takes a long time and you have got to be dedicated. This is a wonderful opportunity for me to pass on what I have learnt and create a whole new pool of knowledge with these women.”

While Deborah had taught one or two people individually in the past, this was her first formal lesson, standing in front of a class. “It has been a big learning curve for everyone, but the women are so gracious and forgiving and eager to learn,” she said. “My class have all become very close and it is like we have created this very special group of women.”

Deborah paid tribute to Ngati Hei for their support and encouragement and for allowing them to live and work in their rohe or tribal area. She said that in the past, no doubt because of the work involved, cloaks were only worn by people of chiefly status. “Back in the day, pre-colonisation, feather cloaks were worn only by the rangitira, by the chiefs as a sign of high prestige,” she said. “But because we live in contemporary times, that is how it has become that each whanau would aspire to have their own kakahu for celebration, for specific events, for weddings and for graduation from university.”

Now, one class at a time, Deborah is slowly helping make sure that the ancient art of Maori cloak-making prospers for a long time to come for modern whanau to have their own family kakahu to wear  for special occasions.

Caption - The group of women reviving the art of Maori cloak making at Whitianga Social Services in Whitianga. Back, from the left: Jo Waite, Adrienne Jervis, Susan Griffiths and Lavena Berryman. Front, from the left: Bess Kingi Edmonds, Deborah Phillips, Vicki Southon and Sandy Gaskell.