Taonga Tuku Iho – Treasures passed down

About the same time I started learning Māori, I took up knitting. I barely had the time for it, let alone the patience. And I had no prior skill with yarn or needlework. Every single stitch was a struggle.

In those early days, I couldn’t even tell the right side from the wrong side, so if I put my work down halfway through, I’d come back to it and could un-knit several rows before I even realised.

I needed a lot of help. I don’t know how many times I sneaked out of my reo classes to take my knitting to Whāea Lucy in the office, who faithfully rescued project after project.

It seemed the harder it was, the more determined I became.

At first, it was all about taonga tuku iho — “treasures passed down”. Our kaiako had put the question to us one day in class: “What are your taonga tuku iho?”

It was an emotional class — which is to say, a fairly typical class. For most of us, the immediate response was te reo Māori. Language is the reason so many of us turn up to wānanga and kura pō and noho marae year after year. We want to pass this taonga down through the generations.

But apart from language, I wondered, what knowledge or skill from my parents would I pass on to my own children?

It was a question that kept me up at night.

I don’t weave or paint or sew. I can’t play an instrument or sing. I hate cooking. Other than a collection of photo albums and a Lego biplane, I looked around the house and couldn’t lay my hands on a single thing I could say I had made.

When I was growing up, everything around the house was homemade. That’s just the way things were. Everybody was handy, whether it was a sewing machine or a hammer or a crochet hook. Nobody I knew bought anything new.

I can still remember going to Deka, full of anticipation, only to hear my mum say the dreaded words “I can make that,” before putting the skirt back on the rack. Like so many mums, she sewed the curtains and the cushions, the car seat covers and the tablecloths. And all the clothes my dolls wore.

Later, when my babies were born, my mum knitted vests and hats and booties and blankets. She churned them out until her arthritic fingers ached. I still have all those baby clothes, heirlooms in a rainbow of colours, stored in a big plastic box under my bed.

That’s when it dawned on me: I’d been sleeping on top of my taonga tuku iho for years.

My mum taught me to knit.

Actually, the truth is my mum tried to teach me to knit, but I was the worst.

I was impatient and rude. I didn’t listen, couldn’t follow instructions. Besides, what motivation did I have? If I really wanted a lovely hand-knitted cardigan, I could just buy the wool and get my Mum to make it for me. 

After a few weeks, I lost interest. I threw the little vest I was working on into a box at the back of the wardrobe. I never expected to find myself digging through that box more than a decade later, hunting for the pair of discarded knitting needles my mother had given me.

My second attempt at knitting wasn’t much better than the first. I was still impatient and uncoordinated, and progress was painstakingly slow. 

But I was persistent. I battled the voices in my head reminding me I wasn’t a naturally creative person and I should just give up.

Every time I dropped a stitch, panic would set in. If it wasn’t a school day and I couldn’t take my knitting to Whāea Lucy in the office, I’d have to drive down to Spotlight and lurk around in the wool aisle, vaguely deranged, waiting for someone who looked knitterish to come along. 

Once, in a camping ground in the Waipoua forest, I spied a blonde-haired woman knitting socks on five needles outside her tent. Five needles! She was an expert. I grabbed my blanket and took off.

Gerta was German and didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t matter. Knitting is a universal language. In fluent German, Gerta showed me how to slip down 23 rows to pick up a single dropped stitch.

It was about that time that I realised that learning to knit was exactly like learning Māori. I battled the same voices in my head telling me that language didn’t come naturally to me and I should give up. The same panic would set in when I made mistakes. Some days I felt like I was making absolutely no progress — on my reo, or my knitting.

But then I would wake up in the morning and pick up whatever project I was working on and see that, little by little, I was making progress. I could knit a scarf. I finished a whole blanket. 

And, miraculously, I could have a conversation in Māori.
What’s more, the mistakes I feared so much, were usually the moments when I learned the most. There’s no better way to learn how to knit, than to go back and unpick what you’ve done. Just as there’s no better way to learn the correct way to say something, than to say it wrong. 

After a while, I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes anymore. I started reading patterns, and aspiring to even more advanced projects. I pulled out the box of clothes from under the bed and admired my mother’s work. I turned the booties over in my hands. Appreciated the time and skill that went into making them.

For a long time, I used to think that te reo Māori was something that I would achieve. Fluency was a goal. Each word or sentence I banked took me closer to that goal. But the more I knitted, the more I realised that I was missing the point.

The enjoyment was in the process. The feel and texture of yarn between fingers. The shape of new words taking form in my mind. Sure, there was great satisfaction in completing my first tea cosy. But one knitted thing didn’t make me an expert. Just like one tohu doesn’t make a person fluent. There is always more to learn, always improvement to be made.

And so my knitting and reo journeys run in parallel.

I’m not the fastest knitter, and I’m not the sharpest speaker. But I can knit with my eyes closed and fix most of my mistakes. I can knit in the dark in movie theatres, and in trains and on buses and while waiting in queues at the bank.

I look forward to long whaikōrero on marae, feeling kinship with the other women in the wharenui who surreptitiously pull out their knitting too.

I still make mistakes. The other day I attempted to make marae slippers, but ran out of wool after only one slipper. But even that lone slipper was a taonga. My mate came and picked it up and sent it to her godfather who only has one leg.

I think a lot of people hold back from learning Māori because they’re afraid. Shame creeps up on us and keeps us quiet. But we have to push past those voices telling us we’re not good enough.

Te reo Māori isn’t something to go out and get, it’s something to share. You learn a language the same way you learn to knit. One stitch at a time, one word at a time.

Sometimes, people see me knitting and sigh admiringly, wishing they had the time or the patience to knit. It feels bizarre to be described as patient. I took up knitting precisely because I wasn’t patient, at a time in my life when I had absolutely no hours in the day to spare.

Yet even with all this progress, some days I look at the road ahead of me and see how far I’ve still got to go, and I ask myself “what’s the point?”

Then slowly, quietly, the words Taonga Tuku Iho come back to me. The knowledge that we have a responsibility to pass on these gifts to the next generation. 

These days, I’m learning to crochet. I can lay my hands on a dozen or more things around the house that I’ve made. I even helped a girl read a pattern in an aisle at Spotlight, once. Best of all, my daughter is able to say: “My nana taught my mum to knit, and my mum taught me. 

So, as my kaiako once said to me, I say to you: “what are your taonga tuku iho?”