Honorary Curator of Ethnographic Textiles and the Maori material in the
Otago Museum. If you haven't already, read last week's article on the
Margery Blackman first became known nationally in New Zealand as a tapestry
weaver, but more recently she has turned her energies to curatorial and
conservation work with historical textiles in Dunedin public
Margery's intense interest in textiles began when she was a student at the
Home Science School at the University of Otago.
Research and self-generated learning
Her weaving began when she was living in Scotland in the 1960s. Being
unable to find suitable tuition in weaving she studied books and was
largely self taught.
Interest in historical textiles
At about the same time her interest in historical textiles began. She
took advantage of seeing museum displays in Britain and this gradually
extended into building up a worthwhile personal library on the history of
textiles throughout many cultures.
Honorary curator at the Otago Museum
Margery explained, "As there is no tuition available in New Zealand in this
specialised area the learning was inevitably self-generated. Overseas
travel added considerably to my knowledge as I was able to study museum
collections, attend occasional lectures and conferences. This led to my
being invited to be the Honorary Curator of Ethnographic Textiles and
Costume from Other Cultures as well as the Maori material in the Otago
This meant identifying, researching and caring for the Maori cloaks and
other textiles, such as mats, bags, and some basketry, and the Otago Museum
collections of material from Asia, including China, India, Indonesia, and
Japan, from Africa, the Middle East and North and South America, and folk
costume from the Balkans. Apart from the Maori material the major
overseas collection is from China.
Recent academic acknowledgement of the study of textiles
Margery finds it surprising that it is only in the last twenty or thirty
years that academic disciplines have included the study of textiles and
costume which are so much a part of the every day life and the ceremonial
of a people.
Coptic collection of interesting origin
One of the small, but rare, collections in the museum which has especially
interested Margery is fragments of Coptic and early Islamic textile fabrics
from archaeological sites in Egypt. They were given to the museum in
1946 by a Greek antique dealer, a Mr Tano, who had an antique shop in
Cairo. He gave them as a tribute to the performance and courage of the New
Zealand Second Expeditionary Force in Greece and Crete in 1941.
A museum benefactor, Colonel Waite, collected a lot of stone, pottery and
other artefacts from the Middle East for the Otago Museum during his
overseas service in both World Wars. He was at Gallipoli in World War I
and served in Egypt as a welfare office in Egypt in World War 2.
Mr. Tano knew Colonel Waite and would probably be aware that the other
artefacts going to the museum did not include textiles. He selected
seventy pieces extending from the Coptic period about 400 to 500 AD
through the early Islamic period up to imported Indian printed fabrics up
to about the eighteenth century. These are all fragments. Mr. Tano
clearly recognised the importance of such textiles being represented in a
museum and sent this collection to the Otago Museum.
Three fragments are currently on display in the museum. A larger group has
been displayed at the Dunedin Art Gallery and the National Library Gallery
The fragments are part of garments which were found in burial grounds and
rubbish dumps, and which survived because of the dry climate. When the
excavations began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the
decorated parts were all that was rescued from the deteriorating garment so
they became separated from the original setting.
Several fragments feature lions. The Copts were the early Christians in
Egypt, and the lions are thought to represent the lion of St Mark who was
reputed to have taken Christianity to Alexandria. A fragment from a few
hundred years later is decorated with grapes and a simplified form of grape
leaves. Some of the fragments were parts of long bands that were parts of
otherwise plain linen garments. These bands featured saints and other
In the Islamic period there is Arabic lettering on the garments. Margery
has had some of them translated, and they quote short phrases from the
Study of Maori cloaks
Because she is a New Zealander and because Maori cloaks are unique to New
Zealand Margery felt that it would be wise to become familiar initially
with some of the material in the Otago Museum. Then because she was
fortunate enough to travel when her husband had sabbatical leave, over a
ten year period she collected a lot of information about cloak collections
world wide. Collections are held in London, Oxford, and Cambridge, in
Scotland and some are in Switzerland, Italy, France and Germany. She
travelled to Sweden to see a cloak which was collected on Captain Cook's
first voyage to New Zealand. She has also seen cloaks in several North
American museums and a few in Australian museums. This means that they are
fairly widely spread.
Structure of the cloaks
What has interested Margery in particular has been the fine details of the
structure - the way that the threads are manipulated together. They are
made of New Zealand flax, phormium tenax , from the fibres extracted from
the leaves. Many were decorated with feathers for prestige cloaks, or
tags of flax leaf for rain cloaks forming a thatch-like structure.
Margery's particular study has been of the finely twined decorative borders
known as taniko, a technique which appears to be unique to the Maori.
Clothes of the Pre-European Maori
At this point I asked Margery how the early Maori people kept warm in the
winter. Her reply was that it was a case of survival of the fittest, but
that in the south there are stories of seal skin being made into cloaks,
though none are known to be in existence. The skin of the Polynesian dog
which the Maori had brought with them was also made into cloaks. There
were never profuse numbers of these dogs, however. The dog skin cloaks
were made of the phormium tenax fibre and then decorated with strips of
dog skin which would give them added warmth. These cloaks were only worn
by tribal leaders.
The New Zealand flax fibre with washing and beating processes to a very
soft flexible fibre, so cloaks wrapped around the body would give
considerable warmth. In wet or snowy weather they would have an extra
outer cloak or a rain cloak with its thatch made in such a way that the
rain would run off.
Sandals were worn, and sometimes a legging covering the shins, when going
through the matagouri for instance. The life expectancy of the Maori at
that time was probably between thirty and thirty five.
It is difficult to know just exactly what was worn by early Maori settlers
as archaeologists have found so few examples of early Maori textiles in New
Zealand. What is known is that there were very sophisticated, highly
skilled cloak makers working at the time of European contact.
Reference books on Maori clothing
There are a few good publications about Maori clothing. One of the best,
"The Evolution of Maori Clothing", was written early in this century by the
great Maori scholar, Sir Peter Buck, and published by the Polynesian
Another is S. M. Mead's "Traditional Maori Clothing" published in 1969 by
A. H. and A. W. Reed.
A fine more recent publication on Auckland Museum's collection by Mick
Pendergrast - "Te Aho Tapu. the Sacred Thread" 1987, is more readily
Margery's work has not been limited to her role at the Otago Museum. She
catalogued and conserved the textiles at Olveston, the well-known historic
house in Dunedin, has worked as an occasional voluntary conservator for the
Otago Settlers' Museum, and at times worked as a consultant at the Dunedin
Public Art Gallery. This work has included cataloguing the lace
collection at the Art Gallery and some work on the oriental rug catalogue.
Private conservation contracts
As a consultant textile conservator she has undertaken a number of private
contracts. Among many people in the community there is an increasing
interest in old textiles passed down through the family. Private clients
have asked for her advice on the care of samplers and of textiles brought
back by grandfathers or great grandfathers from the First World War from
places like France and Egypt. She frequently talks to groups on the
history and care of textiles.
Waitaki Boys' High School Hall of Memories
Her largest contract was for the preservation of fifty three flags and
eight pennants in the Waitaki Boys' High School Hall of Memories. This
task involved cleaning and repairing the flags and pennants, and
strengthening those fit to be hung in the hall again. The most fragile
were cleaned but not repaired and are stored as a historical record at the
Oamaru Museum. Many were from former British colonies. As a voluntary
extra service Margery has researched the history of the flags and pennants.
As a weaver Margery has had her work exhibited through New Zealand. Her
works have been purchased by museums and galleries. She has also accepted
some private commissions, including woven panels for the Dunedin
Hospital and the Dunedin Teachers College.