Big Blueprint tivaevae – a blend of old and new

Saturday 8 May 2021 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Features, Weekend

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Big Blueprint tivaevae – a blend of old and new
Tivaevae experts Temata Kelly (right) and Vaine Teokoitu and designer Pouarii Jane Tanner. 21042918

The Big Blueprint tivaevae ta’orei – the patchwork style of tivaevae made from 1-inch squares of fabric sewn onto a solid backing – is one of a kind. Its captivating abstract design is intriguing.

The designer and facilitator of the Big Blueprint tivaevae project, Cook Islander Pouarii Jane Tanner shares with us the journey of making the masterpiece during Covid-19, made with the loving hands of tivaevae experts from Vaka Puaikura: Tinomana Tokerau Ariki, Vaine Teokoitu, Temata Kelly and Janice Mataora.

Tanner says the Big Blueprint tivaevae “symbolises traditional knowledge meeting new technology to create something new”.

The piece was created for the Big Blueprint project, funded by a group of young designers/entrepreneurs in New York.

It is named for a document that was going to be a blueprint for how ocean governance could work across the Pacific, and which the Cook Islands was going to be the first to launch last October through Marae Moana.

Tanner says they needed to find a group to make a tivaevae to launch at the conference that spoke to the key things of Marae Moana.

“They wanted to launch something to symbolise what the document was, something memorable.”

Tanner’s mother sews tivaevae, and she encouraged her to meet “the amazing women” in her village of Puaikura and see Tinomana Tokerau Ariki.

The initial work on the project started in February 2020 with 12 women; a three day workshop was held to help the women understand the theme of the design – what Marae Moana’s regenerative economy was.

What is a regenerative economy? “In essence, it’s the same principles of design – it’s about being self-reliant, it’s about not depending on others using what education skills and our resources if need be, but not exploiting them to the point that we don’t have a good quality of life, which I feel especially with deep sea mining, people have a lot of fear around.”

Ideas were discussed on the tivaevae design, and the first pattern sheets of paper featured drawings of birds, flowers, fish and the atamira.

“It was going to be colourful and uniquely Cook Islands; that’s the thing about tivaevae – it looks a certain way and has certain images that we have always used,” said Tanner.

Then Covid-19 occurred and the conference wasn’t going to happen.

Tanner says: “We thought about it, Covid is changing everything around the world, but we are really lucky because we were Covid free… and all the countries in the Pacific were looking at us.”

“We were currently in Code Blue; I’m working on the big blue print, there has to be something.

“What I wanted to do was make a contemporary design, something that people had never seen before because we were in a situation that people had never experienced before.”

She drove around the island intending to visit Tinomana Ariki, but at the driveway stood a single orange flag.

“I saw the orange flag… it just reminded me of real plague times when people had flags outside their houses…”

Undeterred, Tanner kept positive: she would redesign it and make something that responded to code blue and the different Covid coloured flags.

But was there something in the Covid messaging that is relevant to things at the (Marae Moana) conference?

The project talked about ocean governance, says Tanner, adding “Covid teaches us all so much and it gave the Cook Islands a unique platform to do it because we were Covid free – so that’s how we responded to the challenges.”

And with the Covid preparedness restrictions in place, the women weren’t allowed to meet, so they worked separately, alone and in smaller groups led by themselves.

“That’s what we were doing: it was weird times and we had to innovate, and that’s the whole point, we have to change, use new technology but stick to our traditional knowledge to make something new.

“It’s also really interesting to learn how women work together, because it’s a wonderful thing to be part of… we can talk about our homes and our lives,” she says.

As four of the women started sewing the small blocks on a machine, others had given up. Vaine Teokoitu, Temata Kelly and Janice Mataora continued with the project.


The Marae Moana Big Blueprint tivaevae gifted to the Secretary General-designate of the Pacific Islands Forum, Henry Puna. 21042903.

“These women are experts in their skill, I’ve asked them to make a tivaevae in a way that’s never been made before, and they responded to that really well, they kept the level,” Tanner explains.

“Janice always kept to the level, she would say, ‘no this needs to be resewed, this isn’t a straight line’… she has a very high standard. You love her, but when she says it’s got to be redone, you do it.

“We’re all going to be amazing if we just listen to what she (Janice) says.”

Teokoitu and Kelly agrees with Tanner: “If Janice is not happy with it, we have to redo it, cut it off.”

The two women are used to sewing with their hands and not with a machine. “On the machine if you make a mistake it’s harder to fix; you have to take it out and resew it again –hand stiches are easier to unpick,” says Teokoitu.

Both women have sewn tivaevae for many years, a hobby they love because of getting together with other women.

Having experienced these special sewing moments Tanner observed that Maori women don’t have the luxury to kind of go, “Oh let’s get together just to talk; it’s a western thing where women go, ‘we’re going come together to talk about ourselves’… and Maori women go, ‘we don’t have time I got stuff to do, we don’t have time for that’.”

Teokoitu laughs and agrees “we call it a ‘pange’ when we sit together and start sewing and talking, about everything; we share, but we’re doing something at the same time – like sewing.”

“I actually think that it’s a more elegant way of taking that time for yourself, because it seems like women are always doing stuff,” Tanner adds.

Tanner also forged a long-lasting bond with the women she worked with.

“If we weren’t doing this stuff, I wouldn’t be making friends with the mamas in my village, it makes me really proud to be able to do that.

“I think that the principle of the project ended up teaching me in my own life… I visit a mama’s house and have coffee then I get pineapple pie at another house… I’m always trying to get an invite to Vaine’s garden, to look at her plants.”

“It’s my hope that we can do that with our ocean governance, we’ve proved that we can do that with design, we’ve proved we can do that with Mamas and technology, we’ve proved that that’s actually a harmonious relationship when its respectful."

Tanner was honoured to be part of such a significant project, completed during such an extraordinary time: “It was so amazing.”

“All of them had such big hearts, they would have loved to do more, in all Maori things it’s a team effort – it’s a beautiful thing.

Last month, the tivaevae was gifted to former prime minister and the incoming Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Henry Puna.

Tanner conveyed the following message to Puna: “Thank you for your innovation; innovation requires bravery and you did that by working with young designers around the world and giving me the opportunity to work with the Mamas in my village, that is one of the honours of my life.”

“May you continue to innovate in your new role and may you bring that innovation and that Cook Islands spirit to your new role.”

Tivaevae isn’t made anywhere else in the world except here, says Tanner. “It’s only through us processing it, it’s only through us girls; we should really take that same approach to sea bed mining and think about that.

“There’s fear around technology and what it is. These Mamas really proved something incredible. If Mamas can embrace new technology and contemporary tivaevae design… we can all handle it.

“It’s my hope that we can do that with our ocean governance, we’ve proved that we can do that with design, we’ve proved we can do that with Mamas and technology, we’ve proved that that’s actually a harmonious relationship when its respectful.

“The Big Blueprint tivaevae gift ensured it was full of the love that we find in traditional tivaevae.”