Tuesday 8 February 2011

Humbled by Harakeke or Weaving with Flax

Many of us grow Phormium tenax or Phormium cookianum plants in our gardens.  The coloured cultivars are almost ubiquitous now in many a planting scheme and have been arguably 'over-used'.  Also, the big guys are notorious for being difficult to remove once they have grown to full size and need to be positioned carefully. But how many of us know the spiritual connections they hold for the Maori people of NZ or the amazing things that this tough evergreen can be used for? I have long used it in my coastal planting schemes but have grown to love and respect it for both its toughness but now for its spirituality too.

Prompted by the many stunning wall hangings and sculptures I saw in NZ homes and their seaside Baches, I determined to learn this skill for myself. So, as my penultimate day in New Zealand arrived I turned up for a flax weaving workshop with Ariana Millward at Matapiti (arianamillward@xtra.co.nz), a sweet looking
(or should I say, sweet az) gallery at the top of the hippy-surf town of Raglan, North Island.

My session began with a Kara kia - a prayer of thanks to Papatuanuke, the earth. Now in my time I have  been to many workshops which begin with all sorts of introductions from the mildly embarassing to the deeply contrived.  But there was something so seriously genuine about Ariane that I immediately found myself smiling in deep contentment and recognition at this wonderful approach to harvesting plant material.

Ari told me that the plant material is never picked when it is raining, in the snow or at night.  Women do not cut the flax when they are menstruating but they can weave. Weaving materials must be kept separate from the food areas and when working on it it is respectful to walk around the plant materials and not to step over them.

 She had learnt her own weaving skills from a group of Maori mothers as part of a total immersion programme in one of the local schools. But she also explained that she had an uncle in her Maraii who was an especially good weaver and she had learnt a lot from him. Clearly flax weaving was culturally very important to the Maori people.

I was absolutely entranced by her simple combination of spirituality and good horticultural common sense. The story-telling approach to good practise resonated especially with me.  As a trained primary school teacher I had often used this technique myself  to aid with learning and the training of memory.

The harvesting of the flax leaves involved choosing the best material and making a clean 45o clean cut with a stanley knife.  The most important lesson was not to 'harm the infant', the emerging young bud guarded either side by the protective parents( the outer leaves) but to select older outer leaves instead.  Thus of course, ensuring the continuing life of the plant.

Tidying up as you go, rejecting the diseased or damaged leaves with any waste material going back into the compost bin for recycling was also explained to me.  I nodded in approval and swopped some of my own tales of compost making back in England.  I was loving this approach and we hadn't even begun to make a thing! Imagine  if every child experienced just this simple  giving thanks to the earth before harvesting a plant what a difference that would make to an understanding of the worlds resources.

The flax, or Harakeke was great to work with.  Strong yet supple, soft on the hands yet easy to tear. Whilst making my own humble weaving my eyes were drawn to other intricate weavings that adorned the walls. Particularly impressive was a contemporary ceremonial cloak which had feathers and embroidery woven into it.

My own woven basket was quick to grow and I was as proud as an infant with its first emroidery sampler when I stepped out of the Studio some two hours later, clasping my green basket in my hands. The fact that I lovingly carried this back as hand luggage over thousands of miles and that it now sits amongst my personal treasures is enduring testimony to that special lesson.

But beyond the physical reminder in the form of my little basket I carry the spirituality of the flax with me and a continuing fondness for New Zealand, it's special plants and it's people. No wonder then, that I have several planted in my southern hemisphere garden and why it continues to have a special place....


At 8 February 2011 at 20:25 , Blogger Diana Studer said...

Southern hemisphere garden? After that buildup are you not going to show us the basket? When we were visiting the island of St Helena there is masses of flax from a once was linen industry. Sad that the industry had gone dormant when we were there. Good grief, must be about 15 years ago now ...

At 9 February 2011 at 08:44 , Blogger Janet/Plantaliscious said...

Hi Chris, what a great experience. I watched a documentary a while ago that showed flax weaving, and was amazed at the intricate creations, but it didn't touch on the spiritual side at all.

At 10 February 2011 at 23:29 , Anonymous Matapihi Art Gallery said...

Hi Chris, so wonderful your blog about Harakeke and its spiritual significance for Maori, It is such an amazing plant that certainly humbles me every time I weave. I so enjoyed reading the experience you had at Matapihi Art Gallery in Raglan. Ariana is not working with us anymore as she is studying Art full time. We are still offering weaving workshop's which are working really well. I will pass your email/info onto her. Thank you. Mihi nui na Ardre'Foote Matapihi Director.

At 11 February 2011 at 20:54 , Anonymous Stuart said...

Hi Chris
What a great article. Our students in Golden Bay have the advantage of learning from two expert flax weavers and they produce some wonderful things with all sorts of natural dies. I'm out with my year 12 Biolgy class on Monday investigating the Gause's Principle of Competitive Exclusion, using the notch and window caterpillars which live in the leaf base of the harakeke.


At 21 February 2011 at 20:07 , Blogger Diana Studer said...

Will you look in on your Blotanical plot some time? There are a bunch of welcome messages waiting for you ;~)Diana

At 11 March 2011 at 14:07 , Blogger Diana Studer said...

Natural swimming pool? They invented that just before we left Switzerland. Using a reedbed to filter the water for swimming in. I think it is a wonderful compromise, if you swim.


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