My role at Te Papa is to identify feathers and hair in the ethnological collections, however on occasion I come across something interesting in my research including the following mystery. While identifying the feathers in the museum’s Māori textiles collection, I counted eight piupiu (skirt or waist garment) with the letter ‘M’ sewn into the waistband. It had already been recorded that one or two had the initial ‘M’ in the waistband. This was unusual but to find eight was a surprise and left me asking why they were added, and by or for who were they initialled. It is usually not museum practice to label collection items in this manner.
The letter ‘M’ in the waistbands of all but one of these piupiu is yellow, one is natural cream. They were fashioned from natural and dyed yellow harakeke (NZ flax: Phormium spp.) or naturally yellow pingao (golden sand sedge: Ficinia spiralis). It seems the fibres were softened (not scraped) and using a needle, threaded into the waistband to form the letter ‘M’ on the outer side of all eight piupiu. A knot holds it in place on the inner side of the garment.
Most of their histories were unfortunately not known or recorded upon inclusion into the museum. Just that they have been in the collection for some time, at least for 50 years. Some were also registered together so have concurrent numbers. A small group were apparently received and registered around 1962, but not much more can be found. It is estimated they were made mid 20th Century and are modern examples of piupiu waist garments.
Many large Māori events happened around the mid 1900s. One possible theory as to their origins and a reason for sewing a letter into the waistband is that the piupiu belonged to members of a kapa haka (Māori cultural performance) group. The letter ‘M’ could have been sewn into the waistbands so as not to be lost or confused with piupiu belonging to other groups. The letter ‘M’ perhaps identifies the person’s initial of who made the piupiu, or it could have been the name of the kapa haka group that wore them.
The piupiu registered ME012027 has a patterning described as korirangi (shining cuckoo bird) which is similar to the fine barring across the feathers of the breast and belly of the bird. These kinds of piupiu were made initially for men. The other piupiu have different variations of the korirangi patterning which originated on the East coast but is today very common. The piupiu all have simple plaited (whiri) waistbands. Several piupiu have variations of diamond patterns which are known as ‘pātiki or pātikitiki’ (ME012017 & ME012023). A type of ‘mumu’ design has also been used in ME012016.
If these piupiu look familiar, or you remember family or friends talking about their old kapa haka group please ask them to contact me if they have any information.
Hokimate Pamela Harwood- Bicultural Science Researcher, Te Papa Tongarewa
 Mead, Sydney. M. (1969).‘Traditional Māori Clothing: A study of technical and functional change’. Wellington: Reed. 238pp.