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Riria and the use of raranga

Over shared kai and kōrero, three inspirational students and their kaiako, Riria McDonald and Vicki Pirihi, discussed their passion around raranga. Their kōrero included the connection of raranga to the Pūtaiao curriculum, and how it has given these students an insight into mātauranga Māori.




Both Riria (Ngāti Whakaue) and Vicki (Te Arawa, Te Whakatōhea, Tūhoe, Ngāti Kahungunu) have teaching backgrounds and have grown up amongst artists, performers and reo exponents from within the Te Arawa region.


Riria and Vicki have now joined forces to share their knowledge of harakeke and raranga with students from Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Koutu, Rotorua Girls’ High and Western Heights.


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Left to right: Ngāmihiaroha, Horowai, Te Ririu


Two of the students, Ngāmihiaroha and Horowai,  began learning raranga while in year 7 at Te Koutu. Now a student at Western Heights,  Ngāmihiaroha has made a hieke and continues to develop her skill. 

Horowai attends Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Koutu and describes his attraction to Toi Māori as ‘innate’. He agrees with Te Ririu, our third inspirational student, about the significance of harakeke. “Understanding the harakeke and its strength, and being sure to use the correct leaf for the right piece is, also, understanding the taiao.” Beyond pūtaiao, he believes raranga enhances an individual’s wairua by being in the company of others while weaving. “Harakeke has changed my whole outlook on my schooling.”


Te Ririu, head girl at Rotorua Girls’ High School, immersed herself in this traditional art form when she was 13. She spent time with weavers at wānanga and her passion for raranga has grown ever since. Her time is now spent working with ‘muka’ – the precious fibre within the rau harakeke. 



Te Ririu says the pūtaiao involved in the extraction of muka involves several stages; classifying and identifying the best rau to use, measuring the water content and, finally, the actual process of extraction.


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"Harakeke has made me who I am." Te Ririu

As part of her commitment to the young girls who are struggling with kura, Te Ririu has created a well-being programme that uses raranga to help them manage their anxiety and problems. “I was like them when I started high school. Raranga helped me build confidence and allowed me to express my feelings, so I’ve begun to work with the girls. Every Monday morning we sit and weave putiputi and we kōrero. I talk to them about how they are and what they are doing. At the same time they build their raranga skills, which in turn builds their confidence to get through school.”


Riria expands on the skills involved in raranga. “There are a hundred varieties of flax which can be individually identified by their leaves and their markings. As a weaver it’s important to look at your bush, and match it to the descriptions in books to classify it. The one we use on the pā site goes back at least two generations and was specifically used for piu. Because it’s geo-thermal in this region not every type of harakeke will grow here."



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“Sometimes it’s really quick and the colour will start coming out as soon as it the water. Other times it takes longer and you need move it around.”



  • Look at the rims and tips and, in Spring, the colour of the kōrari to identify the plant.
  • Cut rau on an angle so rain drains off the rau and back into the soil. If cut straight, the rain will go back into the rau and will cause it to rot.
  • Never take the excess parts of the leaf back to the bush. Bury it so that it can decompose.
  • Pick for muka in winter because it has more water content and is easier to extract.
  • In summer the rau has less water content and dries out quite quickly so is not as good for extraction.
  • Harakeke needs to be the right texture when you use it.  If left too long it will dry out. If it’s too dry, it has to be wet again to work with. However, if it’s wet too much and then dries out, it will shrink and leave holes in the final product.
  • Harvest in Spring to be in ready to weave the following seasons. It’s a good time to see the kōrari for novice weavers and for the more able to have ready for winter.

  • Once we are ready to weave, we ‘hāpine’ the rau.
  • This process softens the rau and prepares it before placing in the ngāwhā. It softens the whenu and extracts the water.
  • Use pounamu (if you have it) or stone to do this. While stone is hard, it connects to the leaf and softens it beautfully.  
  • We group the leaves and put them in the ngāwhā (geo-thermal water) to boil; this  takes out the chlorophyll (green pigment). The harakeke is then hung up, dyed (if required) and left ready for weaving. Boiling the harakeke allows the leaves to be left longer before weaving.
  • After the harakeke has been boiled or put through the ngāwhā, it’s important to store it in a clean, dry place. Moisture will develop mould and rot.
  • The harakeke is still living when it’s taken from the ngāwhā. The boiling process only takes the chlorophyll from the rau, it doesn’t do anything else.  
  • When extracting muka, score the rau (without cutting right through) and look inside the leaf for the cellulose (a substance that exists in the cell walls of plants). This will determine whether the muka will be extracted easily. (Notice the width of the cellulose bubbles in the photo below. This leaf is good for extraction.)
  • The fewer bubbles of cellulose the less likely it will be to get muka. If the cut is right, you’ll be able to extract. Getting the cut right is really important.
  • Find and use a kuku shell to extract muka – it’s softer than a knife and has more of a ‘natural’ connection to the plant. (“Kuku shells are the tūturu ones. Don’t use the green lip ones, because they break,” says Vicki.)
  • When working with muka you want clean flax, with little specks in the rau so that it comes out white. However, due to changes in the environment, climate change and changes in what the ngata (snails) carries when on the harakeke leaves, we are seeing more speckled leaves.
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While the interview was predominantly focussed on Pūtaiao, it became clear that harakeke and raranga connect all areas of the curriculum. All three students understood the knowledge around Pūtaiao when working with harakeke, but saw it as a tool for continued growth and well-being. 


Riria continues by saying, “It’s difficult to separate the curriculum areas and focus on one at a time. They are all part of raranga, and impact on each other. He tika te kōrero, he pā whakawairua te pā harakeke because from the harakeke bush stems all our traditions, stories and tikanga. Vicki and I share our knowledge of raranga with our rangatahi to ensure the ‘mauri’ of our place and the place they have in the world is strong like the muka – me he muka tangata.” 








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