Admire, Travel

A textile tour of New Zealand: five fabulous places to visit

Jules asked about things that the textile and fashion enthusiast should see in NZ.

Sadly, there aren’t actually many  exclusively textile and fashion focused places to visit in New Zealand – there is the NZ Fashion Museum, but it doesn’t have a building, so just does travelling exhibitions (and so far they have been more eye-candy than sink-your-teeth-into-them-and-learn exhibitions), and there are small scattered fashion and textile history displays at other museums.  Many of these are fabulous – just not all in one place.

With that said, here are my five top picks of textile-y things to see and do in New Zealand.  I’ve picked things that are open all year round, rather than special one-off events like Art Deco Weekend, World of Wearable Arts, or Victorian Days, so that a visitor to NZ could feasibly see all of them in one trip.

With a paisley shawl, Auckland Museum

With a paisley shawl, Auckland Museum

I’ve put them in North to South order.

1) Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland

Much as I love Wellington, I have to admit that the best spread  of historic dress on display in New Zealand at any given time is probably at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.  There are special exhibitions at other museums from time to time, and small, but nice, semi-permanent but constantly changing (as any responsible museums textile exhibitions will be) textile and fashion related displays  at museums such as Te Papa, the Museum of Wellington City and Sea, and the Hawke’s Bay Museum, but Auckland Museum’s costume displays in the design and decorative arts galleries are the most reliably drool-worthy.

Last time I was there there was everything from an  18th century sack gown, to a mid-19th century wedding dress, to Arts & Crafts inspired 1910s dresses in metallic brocade, to slinky ’30s gowns on display.  A good couple of hours of swoon-ing right there!  Plus, the Maori and Pacific exhibitions have some fantastic textiles.

Front Entry Hall, Auckland Museum

Front Entry Hall, Auckland Museum

2) Foxton & the Foxton Flax Stripper

There isn’t that much in the way of textile history left in Foxton, but I still think it’s well worth a visit, because Foxton was the centre of a unique and fascinating textile industry  – the New Zealand flax industry.  Harakeke (which isn’t flax at all) processing was a major NZ export in the late 19th century and early 20th – rivaling hemp and sisal as a cord product.  It was also used for mats, and other furnishings.

In Foxton you can learn a bit about how harakeke was used pre-European contact, see it growing along the river walk, see the stripper in action, and (randomly) also visit a Dutch windmill in action, and learn a bit of general local history.

Also, c’mon, having ‘go see a stripper’ as your itinerary for the day has got to make you laugh just a little 😉

3) The World of Wearable Arts & Classic Car Museum, Nelson

While very niche, the WoW Museum in Nelson is one of  the only dedicated fashion/textile museum in New Zealand – albeit one that is entirely focused on the costumes produced for the World of Wearable Art Awards.  The costumes are mad, and fabulous, and spectacular.

A caveat: almost everyone I know who has visited the museum, including myself, has ended up finding the car section more interesting than the costume section (and my usual car knowledge is “What kind of car?  Ummm…small?  White?  Four doors?  The kind that looks like a bug with slanty back eyes?”.  While being able to get significantly closer to the costumes than one can in the stage show is great, they do loose something for not being worn, and after a couple of dozen, the novelty of the novelty really wears off.  The cars are more interesting because they have social history, and are intertwined with our past and the lives of our parents and grandparents.

4) Lillia’s Lace Museum, Geraldine

I’ve never been to, and have only recently learned of, this private lace museum.  But I have heard quite good things about it – apparently it has lots of lovely examples of lace, and bits of lace and lace history that are unique to New Zealand.  I wonder if it has any lace made from harakeke – because that was done!

I think private museums are always quite fun to visit – they can be really awful, or really fantastic, but  the love and effort and dedication someone has put into creating them is always a beautiful thing.

5) Otago Settlers Museums

Otago Settler’s Museums is one of the best social history museums in New Zealand.  It invariably has fascinating textiles scattered throughout its exhibitions, and a fabulous dedicated Material Culture gallery, with pretties.  Highly, highly recommended!    (if only it didn’t have the world’s most annoying website).

Bonus: they are looking for images of your pets for their upcoming Cats & Dogs exhibition (I’m sorry, I just can’t do the ‘n’ thing!).  Felicity prefers to have her own exclusive  forum, but perhaps your beloved moggie or doggie should be featured?

There are, of course, tons more things to do.  The Hawkes Bay Museum and Art Gallery in Napier frequently has fantastic exhibitions, as does Te Manawa in Palmerston North.  In Wellington there are the aforementioned galleries at Te Papa and the Museum of Wellington City and Sea.  The Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Museum has period textiles, and it, along with The Dowse and Pataka have the occasional swoon-able  textile focused  exhibition.

Of course, if you have time you really should see all of these!  And there is more!

NZ readers – what’s your favourite textile or fashion history thing to do in NZ?  What have I missed?

A final word: if you are visiting New Zealand from overseas and planning to rent a car, PLEASE BE CAREFUL!  If you are coming from further than Australia, don’t rent it your first day: spend a day resting, exploring Auckland or Wellington or Christchurch, and studying other drivers and  the road rules.  Don’t try to do too much driving in any one day – better to see less of NZ, and enjoy it more, than rush through trying to do everything.  Drive slowly and carefully on our (many) narrow, twisting roads.  Pull over to let the locals past whenever you can.  And STAY LEFT!


  1. Marguerite says

    Thanks Leimomi 🙂 Canterbury Museum has a beautiful example of historical harakeke lace. I think a previous curator published about it – I’ll see if the article has been digitised.

  2. Oh, these places look like so much fun to visit! Unfortunately I don’t have a trip to NZ planned anywhere in the near future. Love the driving tips at the end though. I just made a 300 mile move within the same country and the attitudes of the drivers seem so much different with that small leap!

  3. Wow so many places I didn’t know about to visit next time Im up north, or down south!
    There is also the Stansborough in Petone, where you can do tours of their workshop and see the vintage looms in action (so loud but so amazing!)

  4. There’s also the Christchurch Guild of Weavers and Spinners in Christchurch (I am a committee member, just for disclosure purposes). We’re open on Saturday’s and Monday’s from 10am till 2pm and also Tuesday evenings from 5.30 pm. You can often see how things were made, spinning after all hasn’t changed much over the millenia; it’s still a matter of putting twist into fibre to make it stronger and longer. Weaving on the floor looms is also not much different; the machinery may have updated a bit but the basic premise is the same.
    And of course there is a lot of knitting.
    We don’t have anything made in the nineteenth century, but it’s nice to see how things would have been made anyway.

  5. Elise says

    What a lovely post! (And a great note at the end–yes, travel should be about resting and staying safe so that you can really enjoy the things that you really want to do!)

    It’s been fun reading the extras posted by the readers, too.

  6. I have no idea if I’ll ever make it to NZ, although I would love to!
    Good thing is I don’t drive, so… How’s NZ public transport? I’m awfully used to public transport.
    I don’t think we have any museums focused solely on textiles, either. Although maybe there are some smaller ones I don’t know about. What I know about are often permanent displays, though… I assume it’s wrong because there’s danger of gradual damage?

    • Tiffany says

      Hana, I think you’ll find that New Zealand doesn’t have the best public transport, or at least not in the south island -pretty much everyone round here drives

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