Kōrero kākahu: Rain Capes

by Matariki Williams

This week we are featuring two kākahu shown in Kahu Ora that employ the same weaving techniques but use distinctly different materials. These kākahu are both versions of pākē or rain capes, one from 1850-1900 and the other made in 2009 by Matthew McIntyre-Wilson.

Päkë, 2009, Wellington. McIntyre-Wilson, Matthew. Purchased 2011. Te Papa

Päkë, 2009, Wellington. McIntyre-Wilson, Matthew. Purchased 2011. Te Papa

The inspiration for this pākē hukahuka came when Matthew inherited a pākē that had originally been given to his great-grandfather and was possibly from Te Rangihiroa, Sir Peter Buck. Trained as a jeweller, Matthew was taught how to weave through his friend and master weaver, the late Rangi Kiu. After initially working with flax, Matthew moved into using more contemporary materials thus combining his passions.

Päkë, 2009, Wellington. McIntyre-Wilson, Matthew. Purchased 2011. Te Papa

Päkë, 2009, Wellington. McIntyre-Wilson, Matthew. Purchased 2011. Te Papa

The underside of the cloak is very colourful and shows the base of the cloak to be made of electrical cables. The overlapping tags on the outer of the cloak have been made from the copper stripped from the cables. Despite the deep layers of silver and copper, the colours from the electrical cables also show through.

The pākē developed from a need for Māori to adapt to their newer, cooler clime. They were strong and durable and oft valued for their practicality over their aesthetic qualities. This pākē from Matthew manages to bridge both these qualities, being both modelled on a pākē with its layers of thatching (I’m not sure if it has been tested on its waterproof qualities!) and being exquisitely beautiful.

Whakatipu (type of rain cape), 1850-1900, Taranaki. Maker unknown. Purchased 1904. Te Papa

Whakatipu (type of rain cape), 1850-1900, Taranaki. Maker unknown. Purchased 1904. Te Papa

This whakatipu is from between 1850 and 1900 and is made from natural materials with a foundation of muka (processed New Zealand flax) and covered in rain tags also made from short strips of flax. The tags are attached to the foundation starting from the bottom of the kākahu and heading upward creating a thatch affect that causes rain to drain off the cloak and keep the wearer dry. The whakatipu is laid flat in Kahu Ora and the height of the tags off the foundation is impressive, this kākahu would be both warm but also impenetrable to rain. Botanist Joseph Banks who accompanied Captain James Cook on his first voyage to New Zealand observed of pākē that “every strip of leaf becomes…a kind of gutter which serves to conduct the rain down.”

Whakatipu (type of rain cape), 1850-1900, Taranaki. Maker unknown. Purchased 1904. Te Papa

The detail on this whakatipu is quite astonishing, each harakeke tag will have been scraped with a mussel shell to soften it, been folded in half and then twined into the foundation of the cloak. From afar, this cloak looks very feathery in texture due to the hundreds of tags. Most pākē were for everyday wear with mangaeka and tihetihe as exceptions, these kinds of pākē were coloured and worn by chiefs. Kahu tōī were different again and were valued for their protection and camouflage, they had thick necks that could dull the blow of a weapon.

Changes in the material used to make kākahu highlight the need for people to adapt to the areas they live in. Having discovered that the aute (paper mulberry tree) from the Pacific did not take to the cooler New Zealand climate, Māori found harakeke to be a suitable replacement to make garments with. Matthew carries this adaptive sentiment forward with his application of a material that he is already renowned for working with. In Whatu Kākahu it is stated that senior weaver Eddie Maxwell felt that it was the mana of the weaver that determined the value of any weaving rather than the materials, and considered garments woven from plastic and other non-natural resources as having their own beauty. This applies to Matthew’s cloak which is made from a mixture of natural and non-natural resources. His pākē is a rainbow of colours covered with the fine threads of copper and silver. The whakatipu is also impressive with deep colours on the rain tags and the sheer thickness of the kākahu. Both are taonga of their times but also manage to transcend time in that the techniques utilised are sustained.

A new competition has just been added to the Te Papa facebook page where you can design your own cloak and be in the draw to win an indulgent weekend in Wellington.

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