A group of Northland weavers is heading to London to study — and eventually replicate — the only pre-European Māori sail known to exist.

It is thought the finely woven flax sail, which is almost 4.5m tall and 2m across at its widest point, was taken back to England by Captain Cook. It is now stored in the British Museum.

Weavers Mandy Sunlight, of Whangārei, and Ruth Port, of Ahipara, first saw the sail during a weaving tour in 2010 when they were given access to the Oceania archives. Sunlight said they were overwhelmed by the sail, known as Te Rā.

''It's the only known Māori sail in existence but it has remained largely hidden from public view,'' she said.


''It's the size of a small coastal sail, has no provenance and little is known about it, but as weavers we were in awe of its incredibly fine workmanship and skill."

While some of the techniques used to make Te Rā were still used today to weave kete (baskets) and kahu (cloaks), others — such as the hono used to join lengths of weaving together — had been lost.

Now Sunlight and Port plan to return to the British Museum early next year to study Te Rā in detail and recover the skills used to make it. They will be joined by another top weaver, Te Hemo Ata Henare of Moerewa, former wife of Erima Henare and mother of MP Peeni Henare.

In doing so they will be responding to a challenge laid down almost 100 years ago by Te Rangi Hīroa, also known as Sir Peter Buck, who called on his people to recreate a traditional sail before the skills were lost forever.

''When we heard about Te Rangi Hīroa's challenge from nearly a century ago, it sowed a seed within Ruth and me to respond," Sunlight said.

A sail woven by Māori before European contact and now stored in the British Museum is the only one known to exist. Photo / British Museum
A sail woven by Māori before European contact and now stored in the British Museum is the only one known to exist. Photo / British Museum

When the weavers return they will use their findings in a larger project, led by the Hokianga-born academic and artist Maureen Lander, to recreate a full-size sail. With so much knowledge that had to be rediscovered, Sunlight expected the project could take up to two years.

A suitable building close to high-quality flax bushes, at Pā Te Aroha Marae in Whirinaki, South Hokianga, had already been found.

Sunlight said all team members heading to London were skilled weavers with their own specialist skills and interests. Her own specialty was stitching, cordage and poupou or cringles; Port had detailed knowledge of feathers and the matairangi (pennant); and Henare focused on joins or maurua/hono.

The travelling group was self-funded so they planned an online fundraising campaign and were applying for grants.

■ Kaikohe weaving group Te Rōpu Raranga o Kaikohekohe will support the weavers travelling to London by exhibiting and selling work at Rewa's Village, across the river from Kerikeri's Stone Store, as guest artists in the Kerikeri Open Art Studios Trail (Koast). The trail will take place during Labour weekend, October 20-22.