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My latest TradeMe find came in the post a couple of days ago, and it’s a goodie – a linen tablecloth with a deep crocheted edging. In each corner, each embroidered in a different colour scheme using blocks of satin stitch, is a Dutch couple, complete with clogs, bonnet, tulips and a windmill in the distance. The woman’s eyes are modestly downcast; the pairs of figures might even be dancing.


I particularly like embroidery that features people (and animals, but I’ll come to that another time). I love the carefree expression on the face of this lass (somehow the right word!) on a swing.

Like many embroidered women, she holds flowers – but unlike many others, she has a relatively contemporary look about her, with shortish hair and what appears to be a ’50s dress.

Many embroidered women sport crinolines and bonnets. Below, one woman gives flowers to another (a prelude to a 19th-century lesbian romance, I expect).

This wildly glamorous woman with her haughty expression and red nails is on an apron, probably from the 1930s – it’s somehow ironic that the apron hasn’t been cared for, and is spattered with paint.

Is this unfinished (but beautifully embroidered) apron, below, meant to be Marie Antoinette? I love it that the embroiderer has given her a beauty spot while leaving other parts uncompleted. These highly decorated aprons were typically intended for special occasions, not for everyday use.

While I appreciate elegant work (most of it from kits), I’ve also got a particular fondness for more homely, awkward pieces, which may have been designed by the maker. This girl (again on an apron) seems to be gazing just off-screen with an expression of horror as she clutches her bouquet. The tight rows of chain stitch used for her skin and dress also make her look slightly… well… diseased. This apron has no neck strap, and would have been worn pinned to the wearer’s dress or blouse.

And I love this perky madam – a woman who knows her own mind, I reckon. Look at those eyes. Her flowers are particularly colourful.

But one of my favourite pieces is this unassuming little dressing-table mat featuring two Māori wāhine. No flowers here, but flax bushes or bulrushes/raupō. Both women are barefoot, wearing cloaks, and with feathers in their hair.

This woman, below, carries her baby in the traditional style, on her back, tucked under her cloak – the only embroidered depiction of motherhood that I’ve come across anywhere. It’s interesting that representations of parenting or heterosexuality (of men, in fact!) are almost entirely absent from these embroideries, most of which depict a rather dreamlike, female-only world of elegant dresses, flowers and hair done in ringlets (!) – a fantasy of escape from daily drudgery? Men and babies appear only on the Dutch-themed tablecloth and Māori-themed mat. Perhaps the ‘exotic’ nature of other ethnicities (I’m assuming a Pākehā embroiderer, which may or may not be right) added a little glamour, or at least distance, to what would otherwise have seemed mundane or everyday.

Beautiful flowers

I think it began when I discovered TradeMe. Suddenly, a source of endless happy time-wasting, and 1960s children’s card games, and TEAL ashtrays with stylised tiki, and old hotel plates with fern logos, and swizzle sticks in the shape of taiaha or pineapples. And then, an ageing handmade felt golly with a snazzy red and yellow outfit and a sad and bewildered expression on his stitched face, and two tablecloths embroidered with beautiful and complicated floral designs. They were too lovely to put away; I pinned them to the wall.

Then I found a long silky kimono painstakingly embroidered with a version of the Willow Pattern, and some dressing-table mats embellished with hollyhocks, and crinoline ladies, and even one with a Māori wahine in a cloak, a little baby on her back and a flax bush beside her. Someone else was selling her grandmother’s collection of souvenir headscarves – silky beautiful things boasting of trips to New Guinea, Australia and the ‘Fiji Islands’ (all hibiscus and outrigger canoes and afro’d fishermen, that one). The souvenir hankies were even better, with their clumsy hand lettering and awkward, brightly-coloured pictures of parrots and marlin and poi dancers and Māori warriors.

Souvenirs of exotic places

And hankies

I was hooked. I fought with another buyer over a tablecloth wonderfully embroidered with a pictorial map of New Zealand, the country’s outlines dotted with the ubiquitous warriors and pohutukawa and kiwi. I told myself that $75 was my limit, but I kept bidding, my heart pounding, to $120 before I gave up. I wondered if my opponent was Rosemary McLeod, famous for her collections of vintage textile crafts; I muttered and grumbled to think that some other bastard had nabbed my tablecloth for a mere dollar more. But then someone listed an Australian version (kookaburras, wombats, boomerangs, crocodiles) and I got it for a mere $30.

Embroidery across the ditch

Australia's south coast


I’m not really a historian, though I like imagining the past, especially its domestic, unsung details. Perhaps more importantly, if I’m honest, I like things that are beautiful, and things that are funny. I love skilled handiwork, but I also love things that are awkward, a little clumsy, a little kitschy or politically incorrect. I enjoy pieces that mix Māori and Pākehā traditions or imagery, sometimes quirkily, hopefully without hurting anyone’s sensibilities or sensitivities. Really, when it comes down to it, I just like stuff.

August 2017
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