Imagery of native flora and fauna are a common way to project a distinct national identity, and New Zealand textile designers have long looked to the natural world for inspiration.

Distinctive in both appearance and song, one unique New Zealand icon which has frequently featured in printed and patterned textiles is the tui.

The lustre of iridescent blue-black feathers does not easily translate on to printed cloth, but the tui is still easily identifiable by the tufted white feathers at its throat and its sleek shape, and is a frequent subject for domestic textiles and dress fabrics.

By Jane Groufsky

Tui, tui, tuia

One of the earliest examples of the tui in printed textiles is an apron in the Te Papa collection made from commercially printed cotton, with a repeat pattern of tui and twisting leaves on a purple background.

Apron, unknown maker, late 19th century

Te Papa GH015566

The fabric was likely printed in England for the New Zealand market. Up until WWI, textiles and clothing were one of the major groups of imported goods relied on by New Zealanders. Stores like Smith & Caughey and Milne & Choyce which had originated as drapery shops went on to become large and successful department stores, revealing the important role textiles had in late 19th and early 20th century New Zealand commerce.

The tui on this apron was likely inspired by a lithograph by William Shaw Diedrich (1870-1968) which shows a chaotic assembly of native New Zealand birds. Diedrich himself drew largely on the illustrations by Dutch artist J. G. Keulemans, who had provided the plates for Sir Walter Buller’s popular book, “A History of the Birds of New Zealand” first published in 1873.

The fabric designer reproduces Diedrich’s tui against a sinuous leaf pattern, reflecting early 20th century taste in both the Arts and Crafts influence of the leaves, and in the subject matter of exotic birds which had had a resurgence in popularity at this time. Perhaps using a remnant from another sewing project, the owner worked up the fabric into an apron with a distinct New Zealand character. The Heritage New Zealand collection associated with Kemp House contains a workbag in the same print, believed to be made in 1900-1920 by Dory Kemp.


Native birds and flora were popular subject matter for mid-century textile designers like May Smith and Blanche Wormald who created handprinted textiles using carved lino blocks and wood blocks. These handmade fabrics were at a different end of the craft spectrum to the commercially designed objects of this time, but nevertheless featured similar subject matter.

A developing nationalistic spirit led to the emergence of an iconography which we now call “kiwiana”, and domestic textiles wholeheartedly embraced this style. Native birds like the tui featured often on tea towels and scarves, but now were grouped with other illustrated birds and Māori decorative imagery in a mass display of 'New Zealand-ness'.

A common tea towel design from the 1960s and 1970s featured a map of the country surrounded by birds and a kōwhaiwhai border. The proliferation of these tea towels, now kitsch collectors’ items, suggests they were not just bought as souvenirs for the tourist market, but were also popular at home.

Tea towel, Derek Souvenirs, 1960s-1970s

Jane Groufsky

Cheap thrills

By the end of the 20th century, the tui had entered New Zealand popular culture in another way – as the logo of the popular brand Tui Beer. With her Summer 2005-06 “Cheap Thrills” collection, fashion designer Doris de Pont harnessed the pop art potential of this icon. She translated a triptych of battered Tui Beer bottlecaps by artist Paul Hartigan into a red and white polkadot textile print, appropriate for a fashion collection. Other garments featured an enamel button with the Tui logo – turning the bottlecap into a chic accessory. De Pont’s interpretation of the tui is both as a conventional decorative New Zealand symbol, and a tongue-in-cheek twist on this convention.

Doris de Pont, Benz sundress and vest (2005)

Image Michael Ng / Doris de Pont © All Rights Reserved Doris de Pont

Fragile relationship

This increasing self-awareness is also evident in Genevieve Packer’s “Dead Set” collection. Created in 2012, the printed cushion and lampshade designs examine, in her words, “how we package and sell NZ's culture and history to foreigners and ourselves”.

Packer depicts her tui in a rarely-seen form: a line of stuffed museum study skins, photographed in the Te Papa back-of-house collection store. Lying flat on their back, with a specimen tag attached to each foot, they are at odds with the stereotypical image of a lively bird perched among kowhai flowers.

Packer’s aim was to reveal the care and effort put into the preservation of our natural taonga. Though we draw heavily on imagery from our natural world to create a national visual identity, we have a fragile relationship with it. Fifteen bird species have been made extinct since 1850 – in part due to the 19th century trade in specimens for museums and private collectors – and many more are on the brink. 

Genevieve Packer, lampshade from 'Dead Set' collection.

Genevieve Packer © All Rights Reserved

Header image:  Native birds of New Zealand [c.1900],  William Shaw Diedrich Schmidt, 1870-1968.  National Library,  C-066-008

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

Buy now


Groufsky, Jane. 'A Local Motif', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019.