Print and pattern in New Zealand textiles
New Zealand's textile designs provide a fascinating window on our social history. Most were used in practical and fashionable items that have long since been discarded. Fortunately the Museum holds a small historical collection and a growing number of contemporary works.
Reflecting our social history
Printed textiles can speak loudly about the environment in which they were created. Their subject matter, style, colour and technique all reveal clues about our social history. New Zealand designers have consistently taken inspiration from our native flora and fauna, and drawn from traditional Māori forms such as kowhaiwhai and tāniko.
Often used and discarded
One the one hand, the marketability of textiles has offered artists - frequently women - the opportunity to make a living from their work. On the other hand, the domestic nature of these objects means that they are often used and then discarded when no longer serviceable or fashionable. Auckland Museum holds a small collection of mid-20th century printed textiles, and a growing collection of contemporary textiles and garments with bespoke prints.
Hand printing in the 20th century
May Smith graduated from the Elam School of Art in 1931 and soon turned to textile design and production as a way of profiting from her skills. Her hand-blocked works used motifs from New Zealand flora in an abstract and repetitive style. They sold internationally, as well as in local galleries such as the Helen Hitchings gallery in Wellington. Elam graduate Blanche Wormald frequently adapted Māori kowhaiwhai and rock drawings as her subject. Like Smith, Wormald worked with wood or lino blocks to design, prepare and produce textiles by hand. The linocut printing technique uses blocks created from a layer of linoleum adhered to wood. Areas of the linoleum layer are then cut away by the artist, leaving a raised area which forms the pattern when inked. The resulting blocks are durable and can be used for printing hundreds of times; so much so that in 1992 textile designer Ingrid Dubbelt used Blanche's original blocks to reproduce her designs. Auckland Museum holds several examples of these reprints, as well as 72 print blocks.
Expressions of identity
Fabric can offer a literal blank canvas for the expression of ideas, and this is particularly evident in the work produced by Adrienne Foote under her Footeprints brand. Established in 1983, Footeprints textiles reflect the vivid colours of the decade and send strong messages about the social and political issues of the time. One anti-nuclear design features humorously grotesque animal hybrids, such as eight-legged cats swimming alongside fish with human arms. In 1994, Foote formed a partnership with fashion designer Doris de Pont and created the high-end womenswear label D.N.A., in one range pairing collaged classical motifs with rich fabrics like silk velvet. For her Winter 2004 collection 'Let’s Gather Here', de Pont used the titular work by Niuean artist John Pule as a textile print, referencing the form of Pacific tatau and barkcloth patterns.
Print in contemporary fashion
Although the manufacture of most fashion fabrics now occurs offshore, some contemporary New Zealand designers have recognised the value in a custom-printed design. In-house fabrics can give the designer further control over the look of a collection, and guarantee a unique finished garment. Auckland designer Ingrid Starnes creates prints, which are produced in short runs by a local manufacturer. Wellington label twenty-seven names collaborates with illustrator Marta Buda to create quirky patterns that complement the youthful style of their clothing. Ingrid Anderson screen prints furnishing fabrics, taking native flora and fauna as her subject but reinterpreting them as bold, enlarged motifs, evocative of mid-century Scandinavian style.
Cite this article
Print and pattern in New Zealand textiles. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 5 June 2015. Updated: 4 February 2016.