Making a Piupiu

 Steps in making a Piupiu

Photo: Michelle Mayn

A piupiu is a skirt made from the leaves of the New Zealand flax, worn by Māori on ceremonial occasions.  

The body of the piupiu is usually made from flax leaves.   The leaves are prepared in a way that the muka or flax fibre is exposed in some sections so that geometric patterns can be made. The unscraped part of the leaves curl naturally into tubes as they dry and this makes a percussion sound when the wearer sways or moves.  Patterns are further emphasised during the process of dying as the dye will soak more into the exposed fibres and a not the dried raw leaf.

I was fortunate to be taught the technique of making piupiu, while studying at Unitec, from an expert weaver Leilani Rickards.  She demonstrates the technique on this You Tube link.

The Piu Piu Project 

Stanley Knife
Kutai (Mussel) Shell
Old Towel
Pattern Board

There are a number of varieties that can be used for making piupiu with different regions often having a favourite variety to use.  The koohunga variety is a favourite of the Maniapoto area while tihore is used in the Raglan and Taranaki districts (Hopa, 1971). 

The harakeke needs to have the right quality of fibre as the strength of the piupiu will be dependent on the amount and strength of fibre in the blade and how well it can be extracted.  The muka needs to be relatively strong so that it does not break with wear (unless made for decorative purpose).  A blade can be tested to see if it is suitable by stripping and scraping away the green cuticle.  

When selecting a variety to harvest from consideration will also be given to the length of the piupiu being made.  A man’s piupiu, which traditionally comes to slightly above the knee, or a child’s length piupiu can be harvested from a bush with a shorter blade.  A women’s piupiu generally extends below the knee and will require a variety with a longer blade.  

Pattern design
To begin the piupiu determine:
* Waist measurement (add allowance for cross over at back if desired)
* Determine length of piupiu required.  
* Plan overall design
* Determine number of whenu required
* Transfer pattern onto pattern board

Tapahi (Cut)/harvest the leaves
Plan project to be made and decide on most suitable plant and number of blades required – see piupiu pattern/design.

Cut from the bush using normal protocol of:
* Karakia (prayer)
* Cutting on a downward slope with a sharp blade
* Return unused flax to the whenua (land)

Harvest only what can be prepared.  If unable to process immediately either store in a cool area covered with a damp cloth (Hopa, 1971) or place the uncut take (butt) end in a bucket of water.

Prepare Harakeke (Flax)
Toetoe (mark and split) the blades.

* Cut off take (butt end).  Don’t cut too close to the end as the strips won’t curl fully.  
* Toetoe (mark and split) the blades.   Creating even widths at this stage will provide consistency to the amount of the muka that will be used in the top band.   
* Always cut (and mark) on a straight angle, this will help the strips to hang straight down.

Whakapa (cut on the dull side) the strips using the pattern board.   
* Cut evenly across the blade on the dull side (avoiding cutting the edge completely).  
* Apply even pressure to cut about half way through the blade.  
* Pressure will vary depending on the thickness of each blade and some will require a lighter pressure than others.

Haaro (expose muka) using a kutai (mussel) shell.  This process removes the green outer layer to expose the fibres. 
* Turn blade shiny side up and bend where cuts have been made
* Holding firmly in the left hand line the edge of the mussel onto the cut to be exposed. 
* Pull the strip towards you with your left hand while firmly pushing the shell down into the cut.  The underside will start to peel away.  Pull until the shell reaches the next cut.
* Repeat the process on all areas where you wish to expose the fibre, the remaining tag underneath can be pulled or cut off last.  
* Turn around to do the muka end. 
* Haaro using mussel shell  

Miro (roll)* the muka ends with shiny sides of piupiu strips facing inwards. 

* Separate the muka into two equals halves. Hold by pressing the very top of the exposed muka between the fingertips of the left hand and just above the right knee.  This will keep the two sections separate.
* Holding taut with the left hand, start rolling down towards the knee with an inward movement.  This will bring the fibres gradually together.  
* Once the fibres have met and crossed over one another begin rolling back upwards towards you, this will fuse the two halves into a single thread.

Bundle, boil and dry
* Bundle completed pairs into even multiples (5 to 10) and tie a knot in the end.
* Boil for 2 to 3 minutes in fast boiling water, ensuring they are completely immersed.
* Remove excess water.
* Hang to dry in sunshine (and wind) for up to one week to thoroughly dry and whiten.  Do not allow to get wet as this can cause discolouration.
* Check frequently to ensure strips curl evenly and do not curl around one another.  

Assemble Piupiu

Whatu (finger-weave) the piupiu
* Lay out piupiu strips, check for colour variations and that numbers are correct 
* Take prepared aho and knot four strands together at one end
* Separate the wefts with the knot under the thumb.
* Working from left to right, take a bundle and place one warp under the thumb laying over the aho.  
* With the right hand bring top two wefts over the warp, between the middle of the two lower wefts. 
* Bring the lover two warps back over the top to lay to the left.  Place thumb on top weft to keep the tension tight.  
* Place a new warp on top and repeat until all strips have been added. 

Lock off the top with a plaited waistband and secure the dropped warps on the inside with a three plait band and attach ties.

Once thoroughly dry the piupiu is place in prepared dye, left until the desired colour is reached (do not leave too long as this can cause discolouration).  The piupiu is then thoroughly rinsed in cold water, laid flat to remove excess water for 10 to 15 minutes then hung to dry.


Best, E. (Volume 31, 1898). The Art of the Whare Pora. Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of N.Z.1868-1961 , 625-658.
Hopa, N. (1971). The Art of Making Piupiu. Wellington: AH & AW Reed Ltd.
Mead, S. M. (1968). Te Whatu Täniko: Täniko Weaving Technique and Tradition. Auckland: Reed.
Puketapu-Hetet, E. (1989). Maori Weaving. Auckland: Pitman Publishing.
TeKanawa, K. T. (2009). Toi Maramatanga, A Visual Maori Art Expression of Meaning. Retrieved December 7, 2010, from AUT:

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