“According to Māori belief, any talent a person possesses comes from the ancestors and has been passed on between generations.” (Nadia Majid.)
Before I can begin my story, let’s first address the question: what is tāniko?
Tāniko refers to both the form of traditional weaving among the Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, and the geometric motifs found on them. They primarily used tāniko to decorate the borders of cloaks and other ceremonial garments. Nowadays though, one can discover tāniko used for belts, bookmarks, purses and wallets and other woven objects.
According to Erenora Puketapu-Hetet, considered one of (if not the) leading authority on tāniko, in her book Māori Weaving, “Weaving is acknowledged as having its own life force […]. Weaving is more than just a product of manual skills. [It] is endowed with the very essence of the spiritual values of the Māori people.”
How tāniko communicated these spiritual values was through geometric motifs. These designs all carried a specific story or transmitted a cultural value of the Māori. There are four significant designs in tāniko:
Waharua kōpito (a point where people or events cross): consists of vertically-paired diamond shapes, a reminder that change occurs at such meeting points.
Aronui: consists of triangular patterns. The design refers to the pursuit of knowledge about the natural world.
Aramoana (pathway of the sea): consists of horizontal zigzags. The design suggests that the ocean and other waterways provide pathways to many destinations.
Tukemata (eyebrows): consists of notched zigzag patterns. This design has different meanings in different regions.
Tāniko has evolved now that one can weave whichever design one desires into their work, but most weavers start with learning the traditional motifs first, as I did.
Incorporating Tāniko in my Design Work
Even though I picked up tāniko for the first time last year, I had known of the craft since I started knitting. In fact, I use many of the motifs in my design work. Thanks to the geometric nature of the motifs, translating them into knit stitches wasn’t too difficult. Just like with weaving, I viewed my design work a way to communicate, preserve and share the values and stories of the Māori people.
I’ve been knitting for 5 years now and designing full-time for 4 years (I created my own patterns four months after I learned how to knit, but decided to pursue it as a business and career a year later). I still recall the vision that came as I was knitting the first few awkward rounds of my first project (it was a cowl worked in the round). Me creating designs with traditional Māori motifs, hoping to share them with the knitting community and connecting to my cultural heritage I was mostly disconnected to the majority of my life.
I was born in Australia, to a French father and a Māori mother, but moved to the United States when I was six. I spent a few years in France, as my parents wanted me and my siblings to connect to my father’s culture, speak the language, immerse in the culture, eat the delicious food… I do not begrudge my parents for such an opportunity, nor do I resent any parts of my upbringing, but as a result, I grew distant from my mother’s culture (does Austin, Texas sound like a place that would have a thriving Polynesian community?).
Knitwear design not only became a way for me to add in some much-needed representation and diversity in the industry, but it was also a jumping off point for me to connect to my heritage. I had to research the proper use of the designs. And through my study, my understanding deepened, which prompted further investigation, leading to a deeper understanding. The cycle would continue, feeding upon each other.
Even though I felt a sense of pride incorporating my cultural heritage into my designs, there was something still lacking. I did not speak Te Reo Māori, which led me to doubt my own existence as an indigenous person. Learning a new language isn’t my forte though, so I thought to myself, “if I can’t do the talking, why not my hands? Pick up a traditional craft and share the stories of my people through my fingers?”
Knitting has taught me that my hands and fingers are nimble and stable.
Wanting to learn a traditional craft led me to find Veranoa Hetet, Erenora’s daughter. Erenora passed away several years ago, leaving the mantle of passing down the knowledge of teaching tāniko to her. Through her simple Facebook videos of her weaving tāniko every day, my curiosity and desire to learn increased. It was to my great joy and surprise when one of my friends told me about her online tāniko class (this is what I love so much about the internet and social media. It has made the connection and learning so accessible! I didn’t need to travel to New Zealand to learn the basics of weaving). I didn’t hesitate to purchase and soon after, I had ordered the materials needed for my first project.
When I sat down to weave this piece, my hands felt awkward, clumsy and far too big to manipulate the threads. I was frustrated; I wanted to be good at this new craft now!
After a few moments, though, I told myself, “If you took
the time to learn how to knit, then you can be patient with yourself and learn a new skill.”
It is a humbling experience to be a beginner once again after years of knitting where two sticks and string just felt like second nature. But after a few rows, my hands got used to the sensation, and I could see how everything clicked together. Soon, it felt as much as second nature as knitting did.
Once I was just able to let myself go into the flow, my mind wondered.
“Were any of my ancestors weavers?”
“Was I manifesting pumanawa, the traits of natural abilities of a mythical or legendary ancestor?”
I could not stop thinking about my whakapapa (lineage). I hadn’t contacted my grandfather, the best source to ask these questions, in years…
Because abilities and traits are passed from generation to generation, according to Māori belief, there is a sense of tapu, “the ancient Polynesian belief is that the artist is a vehicle through whom the gods create. Art is sacred and interrelated with the concepts of mauri, mana, and tapu (life force, prestige, sacredness).” (Erenora Puketapu-Hetet.)
This meant that the weaving in my hands was more than just weaving, more than a way for me to connect to my cultural heritage or a new form of self-expression or self-care. Weaving was a responsibility. Nadia Majid, author of Myth and Memory in Māori Novels in English (and fellow knitter who I came across in my research), wrote, “A talent for creativity is not an individual’s good fortune, but rather it is the fortune of a kin group, of the tribal group, of the community. It follows, therefore, that the results of such a talent should enhance the group […]. As a result, the Māori writer will have more responsibility than the European writer who is solely accountable for his work as an individual. As an artist, the Māori [creator] will ideally produce work that benefits the group and not just himself.”
I’m still new to learning tāniko and just completed my first piece only recently. While I don‘t plan on turning the weaving into a business venture, the responsibility remains, as I still use the geometric motifs in my work as a knitwear designer.
For the longest time, I shied away from stepping into my identity as a Māori artist, due to fear of not being perceived as “Māori enough.” But through this reconnection, I’ve learned that I am enough as I am. Just like knitting, tāniko is more than just a craft. It is a medium for connection, creativity, joy, and healing. As I twist the fibers in my hand, I have never felt happier in my life. I’ve also learned that I have a great responsibility to uphold. That my work cannot be for me alone, but for the betterment of my people. &