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The Mulvany Sisters

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The Mulvany Sisters

Sybil and Josephine Mulvany established New Zealand's first commercial handweaving studio in 1928.

Mulvany Sisters Collection, Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-2000-10.

Shoppers walking down Darby Street in 1929 might have come upon an interesting sight in a studio window - a woman sitting, busily weaving at a loom. 

Sisters Sybil and Josephine Mulvany established the first commercial handweaving studio in New Zealand, producing textiles that were bespoke, handmade, and of good quality.

Early adventures

Born in 1899 and 1901 respectively, Sybil and Josephine spent the first years of their life in Auckland and studied at Baradene College, a school for girls based in Mt Eden. The sisters boarded at the school following the death of their mother in 1912, and seven years later their father also passed, leaving a significant inheritance.

After some years of employment, Sybil and Josephine decided to make use of their inheritance and in 1926 boarded the steamship Aorangi, bound for the United Kingdom. A year of touring followed, with the sisters buying a car and exploring England, France and Italy.

But by mid-1927, thoughts turned to their future in New Zealand. 

"We simply could not bear to be shut up in an office, likewise neither could we see ourselves on an endless round of bun parties, bridge, gossip and boarding houses. So we looked round for something that we could learn to do that would suit our very practical and adventurous selves and also added to our pocket. After many vain quests we stumbled on a loom and weaving".Sybil Mulvany in Lassig and Fenwick, 1999

Some of the tools used by the Mulvany sisters.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

Three months later, with the completion of a diploma at the London School of Weaving and the purchase of looms and thread, the sisters returned to New Zealand with plans to start a business.

Taniko Weavers

The sisters marketed their woven objects as bespoke and 'guaranteed fadeless'.

Papers Past, New Zealand Herald, 26 March 1929, page 16.

Sybil and Josephine opened Taniko Weavers in Newmarket, Auckland in 1928; later moving to a central location at 5 Darby Street in 1929. From the very beginning, the sisters emphasised the unique qualities of handweaving, setting up their looms in the window of their studio where curious onlookers could watch them create the very items they sold. The ethos of the Arts and Crafts movement was evident in their work - placing value on honest handcraft over machine-made and mass-produced objects.

There was added marketability in the bespoke nature of their work.

"For instance, that table-runner that is all that is needed to complete the colour scheme in the living room. How you have hunted in vain for it, and how easy it is to just state the very size, the very design, the very shade, to Taniko Weavers and watch it take shape on the looms."New Zealand Herald, 26 March 1929

Their canny business sense was also displayed in the range of products made: curtains, hangings, placemats, ties, purses, book covers – the smaller objects allowing them to utilise valuable pieces left over from larger projects.

The Mulvany sisters followed the followed the philosophy of the Arts and crafts movement. A sign in their studio states: "We employ no power or electricity. Every inch of material is woven on our looms by hand."

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-1996-15-3.

The Auckland Museum collection

Although the business dissolved in the 1930s after the marriages of both Sybil and Josephine, they continued to practise their craft.

Auckland Museum houses a large collection of examples of their weaving and the tools of their trade, a rich resource on the early history of European style weaving in New Zealand.

Detail of a hall curtain woven by Sybil Mulvany in the late 1930s.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 2000.50.9.

The textiles, marketed as fade proof, have proven to be so: even the unwoven skeins of thread retain their depth of colour and lustre. Finely woven in a variety of materials, some with subtle colour graduations and others bright and high-contrast, it is easy to appreciate them for the desirable product that they must have been in the 1920s and 1930s.

Further reading

Lassig, A. and Fenwick, L. (1999). The Mulvany sisters: weaving & other adventures. Auckland: Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

Cite this article

Groufsky, Jane. The Mulvany Sisters. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 7 July 2016. Updated: 20 July 2016.

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