Te Papaura was a clothing manufacturer in Auckland at the time. She and her husband then moved home to Rarotonga in 2005 and shortly after brought their son Paul and daughter-in-law over so they could see “what life had to offer over here”, says Denise, adding that she knew they were also missing their grandchildren.
“I brought my two eldest children over and soon realised this place had more to offer for a family – not so much financially, but in the way of well-being. My two eldest just fell in love. I noticed the non-judgemental acceptance over here.”
The whole family made the move to Rarotonga in 2008, “and we have literally never looked back”.
New Zealand-born, Denise grew up around Murupara, close to her family farm in Atiamuri.
“When we arrived on the island, Paul’s mum was sewing, and she encouraged me to join her and learn to tie-dye. I knew nothing about it at the time but we looked around, talked to cousins – one a tattoo artist – and played around with ideas.
“I was not an artist and actually my college sewing teacher said I should stay away from sewing machines. She’d be blown away if she saw me now.”
The business – which became known as ‘Mama Whanau’ – evolved with the help of Paul and Denise’s children, three daughters and a son, who all learned through trial and error.
Tie-dying is done on sunny days, “but one day we had our pareu out drying when we had a shower of rain. We didn’t get it in in time, but noticed the effect that the water had made and liked it. Things happened like that”.
Now Denise uses imported mull, which she says is one thread count lower than muslin. “It’s light and perfect for island wear.”
Screen-printed designs are based on local frangipani, birds, waves and shell spirals. Clothing patterns are kept up to date with the fashion of the day, but are adapted to suit the fabric.
“People still arrive here from overseas and look out for Mama Whanau’s clothing. The main thing for us was – and still is – that it’s all about the quality.”