Throughout the twentieth century, New Zealand textile practitioners have harnessed nature as both material and subject. From foraging lichen and bark for natural dyes to literal interpretations of our landscape, natural forms have been a common source of inspiration.
By Jane Groufsky
In 1941, there was enough interest in natural dyeing from New Zealand spinners and weavers for Amy Hadfield Hutchinson to write a seminal booklet on the subject.
Native plants had long been used by Māori to dye muka (flax fibre) and other natural fibres; for example, the bark of tānekaha produces a rich red which mellows to a red-brown with time. Hutchinson’s book was the first to lay down specific guidelines for dyeing wool with plants commonly found in New Zealand.
Much of the information around the scientific properties of plant dyes came from Lucy Cranwell, a botanist at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Cranwell particularly urged Hutchinson to capture her knowledge in a booklet that could be shared among the community. The first edition of “Plant Dyeing” sold 400 copies, and would go on to be reprinted until 1981.
Natural dyeing has held a continued fascination for textile practitioners in this country. No matter how closely one follows the recommended guidelines around quantities, mordants and temperatures there is always an aspect of unpredictability.
The considerable resources required to dye a large quantity meant that this was often done as a group activity. In 1985 members of the Craft Dyers Guild, a group of cross-discipline fabric artists and craftspeople, held a “Titirangi Spinners Dye Day” at a local beach. This was not just an opportunity to experiment, but a social occasion, with Raewyn Robinson reporting: “Excitement grew as wool was removed from the pots, and hung to dry in the sun. A picnic lunch along the shores of French Bay completed a delightful day for the spinners”.(1)
Given the significance of sheep farming to the New Zealand economy, it is no surprise that wool features so much in our weaving. A sheep breeder as well as weaver, Judy McIntosh Wilson had an intrinsic understanding of the properties of her material. Wilson controlled all aspects of a piece, from selection of the fleece, to spinning the wool, to designing and weaving the final work. In the rug in Te Papa’s collection, Wilson uses a geometric composition and two planes of texture to showcase the qualities of the wool.
In spite of a thriving studio weaving scene in the 1970s, Swedish-born weaver Karin Wakely despaired of the public perception that New Zealand produced wool purely as a raw material, and not as a finished (woven) product. In 1971 she asserted:
“Wool is an infinitely versatile fibre. So much can be done with it that there is scarcely any situation where it is inappropriate yet how often do we see it used where it could speak for the country? ...It can spell the message: ‘here is quality, imagination and sophistication – these people can not only grow things, they can make them’” (2)
Wakely was very particular about how to show off the material to its best advantage, however, and was scathing of weavers who used unspun wool to create works that “look(ed) like the living sheepskin”. (3)
Subject as object
New Zealand is abundant in organic resources for spinners and weavers, but our natural world also is a ripe subject for interpretation. Christchurch weaver Vivienne Mountfort became known for her works based on the landscape around her.
The braided rivers of Canterbury perfectly suited interpretation through woven textiles, and Mountfort returned to this theme several times. In Life Is Like A Long Braided River, she uses harakeke and handmade flax paper to evoke the twisting divergent form of the river. She frequently wove in off-loom circular compositions, drawn to the shape and the opportunities it opened up for pulling the usual grid-like structure of warp and weft into sinuous curves. Pohutukawa And Cliff Face (1978) comprises of seven discs which are suggestive of elements of the pohutukawa tree when seen in isolation, and form a clear representation when assembled as a whole.
In strong contrast to this approach is the work of Yvonne Sloan, who is a master of the twill weave which creates a diagonal effect and dictates the design. Sloan states, “I love angles – most women like rounds, but you can’t do round things in twill”.(4) Mostly working in series, sometimes of up to 25 works, Sloan gradually abstracts an image through her rhythmic, linear style of weaving; natural forms such as butterflies, new shoots, and the fronds of the Nikau palm lend themselves to this transformation, with the final work in the series a mere suggestion of the original motif.
Our landscape is a key part of our identity as New Zealanders. Our textiles reflect this self image, and utilise the resources that our natural world has provided to create work which is unique to Aotearoa.