The fundamental principles of handloom weaving, of fixed vertical warp threads and horizontal weft threads which interlace, may be simple, but the weaver requires both a loom and the knowledge of how to operate it.

For the first half of the 20th century, anything more complex than a simple table top loom was relatively difficult to come by, as were skilled weavers able to offer guidance on their use. Many New Zealand weavers were initially self-taught, but with the flourishing of spinners and weavers guilds from the 1950s on, those interested in learning to weave had better access to resources and opportunities to pool knowledge.

By Jane Groufsky

Mulvany Sisters

Sisters Josephine and Sybil Mulvany are regarded as New Zealand’s first commercial handloom weavers. Following a three-month course at the London School of Weaving in 1927, they imported a loom and established their studio Taniko Weavers in central Auckland.[1]

Although the business was commercially successful, their influence on the early development of handloom weaving came primarily through Josephine’s tutelage of Florence Akins in the 1940s. Akins became the art and design teacher at the Canterbury University College School of Art, where she taught weaving until her retirement in 1969.

Bag, woven by the Mulvany Sisters, Auckland. C.1930s-1940s

© All Rights Reserved Auckland Museum, 1995.177.114

Establishing a practice

From the early 1940s, primary school children were encouraged to learn to weave on basic table top looms provided by the Education Department. Writing about the handloom weaving scene in 1980, Peter Cape suggested that the growth of this craft in New Zealand was in part held back by its association with primary school activities. [2]

By the 1950s, however, the establishment of the Auckland Handweavers' Guild signaled a burgeoning interest in the craft. German artist Ilse von Randow, a commercially successful woven textile designer who moved to New Zealand from Shanghai, was one of the founders; along with her former student Zena Abbott.

Von Randow had taught weaving classes based out of the Auckland Art Gallery and two of her pupils, Abbott and Adele Brandt, went on to become significant names in New Zealand studio craft. Abbott clearly valued the personal tuition: in a 1966 interview she decried the lack of a dedicated craft school which would offer better individual development than sporadic night classes.[3]

Regional growth of the craft was somewhat dependent on whether there were skilled local practitioners willing to share their knowledge. Craft historian Heather Nicholson describes spinner and weaver Dorothea Turner’s efforts to educate members of the Wellington guild, “There were no resident tutors in the city and they had to waylay pioneering art weavers Zena Abbott and Ida Lough when they were passing through Wellington and carry them back to their guild room in the old YWCA.” [4]

Weaver Nynke Piebenga moved from the Netherlands as a 24 year old in 1966, and credits experienced weaver Anne Percival with developing her skill in the craft. After marrying a sheep farmer and moving to an isolated part of the King Country, Piebenga wanted to build on the weaving skills which were part of her education in the Netherlands. [5] Money was tight while Piebenga and her husband established the farm. Knowing about Nynke's desire to weave Anne Percival kindly invited her to learn alongside two other local farmer’s wives, who were paying Percival for tuition.

Percival herself was self-taught “in rather a haphazard way.” [6], initially learning on a borrowed loom and using what books were available. She went on to become a prolific teacher and weaver - she estimates she wove 11,500 men’s ties which were sold throughout the country.

Nynke Piebenga, 'Night Sky', woven silk

Photograph: Gareth-Reeve © All Rights Reserved Nynke Piebenga

External influences

Prior to the heyday of loom weaving in the 1970s and 1980s, it was uncommon for New Zealand-born weavers to leave the country to further their education in this area. It was while travelling through Scandinavia in the 1950s that Ida Lough formed an interest in contemporary handweaving and began to teach herself the craft upon her return.

Ida Lough, weaving, 'Water Grasses' (1974). 920 x 970 mm

© All Rights Reserved Christchurch Art Gallery, 88/124

Self taught textile artist Yvonne Sloan was one of the first weavers of her generation to actively seek professional tutelage in mainland Europe. In 1966 Sloan attended the Sätergläntan Institute of Crafts in Dalarna, Sweden, where the tradition of handloom weaving had deep roots. Coming from New Zealand, where “everyone did lumpy bumpy spinning and natural colours to make it look handwoven”[7], Sloan had to learn discipline in her handling of the loom and materials in order to meet precise Swedish standards.

Sloan would go on to meet fellow weaver Ian Spalding through the local Auckland guild, and in 1977 they set up their professional weaving studio. Spalding had developed his own procedures and their different approaches were not always compatible; Sloan says “When we got married people said, ‘oh you have so much in common!’ but we used to fight like anything about whose way we were going to do it this time.”[8]

Ian Spalding, photographed by John Daley, circa 1977

John Daley © All Rights Reserved Te Papa, F.012266/1

Contemporary weaving practice

Although handloom weaving is not a major part of any tertiary course offered in New Zealand, new artists continue to be drawn to the craft and learn through a mix of self-discovery and intergenerational knowledge.

Matakana-based artist Christopher Duncan’s first attempts were made on a small rigid heddle loom sent to him by his sister when he lived in rural Australia and aided by online videos produced by Ashford Handicrafts. Even today he frequently turns to the American-based website, where he can post an image of a problem and receive ten responses on how to fix it the same day. Some experienced weavers are skeptical that online education can provide a complete understanding of the craft. [9] However, Ian Spalding is optimistic about the continued development of handloom weaving in New Zealand: “Each generation re-learns it all and rediscovers it and that’s part of the excitement of it.” [10]

Christopher Duncan, sleeveless kimono (2016). Hand-woven linen, merino wool and silk.

© All Rights Reserved, Christopher Duncan Auckland Museum, 2016.89.1

Header Image:  Anne Percival teaches weaving 2009. Photograph: Kete Hamilon.

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. 'The Spread of Ideas', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019


[1] Lassig, A., Fenwick, L., & OFlaherty, B. (1999). The Mulvany sisters: weaving & other adventures. Auckland: Auckland Museum.

[2] Cape, P. (1980). Please touch: a survey of the three-dimensional arts in New Zealand. Auckland: Collins. p.121

[3] Vaassen, S. (1967). Profile : Zena Abbott. Three Crafts Journal New Zealand Handweavers August 1967 (16) p.19

[4] Nicholson, H. (1998) The Loving Stitch. AUP, Auckland, p.212

[5] Piebenga, N. conversation with the author, 12 January 2018

[6] ref: Anne Percival - My Textile Life.  

[7] (ref: conversation with the author, 23 January 2018)

[8] (ref: ibid.)

[9] (ref: Ruck-Doyle, J. (2018, February 5) Committed Passion: Handweavers Guilds and a New Generation of Makers in New Zealand. Pantograph Punch

[10] Spalding, I. in conversation with the author, 23 January 2018