The flags that make us

June 9th, 2020 By Sandi Faulconbridge

I was recently tasked with creating flags. Nothing small and easily purchased, and nothing ‘cheap and nasty’. Rather, full-size reproductions of three key New Zealand flags to help support our He Tohu Tāmaki school programmes:

  • United Tribes of New Zealand — Te Kara o Te Whakaminenga o Nga Hapu o Nu Tireni (the original 1834 New Zealand flag)
  • Union Jack
  • the New Zealand Ensign (current).

We wanted to give students and educators attending our sessions something tactile and realistic-looking to help them connect with our New Zealand history in a more personal way.

Opened mid-2019, He Tohu Tāmaki is an education space designed to support teachers and students to access resources, build knowledge, engage in various activities, and hold conversations around themes and concepts relating to New Zealand's three iconic constitutional documents:

  • He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tireni — Declaration of Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand
  • Te Tiriti o Waitangi — Treaty of Waitangi
  • Women’s Suffrage Petition — Te Petihana Whakamana Pōti Wahine.
3 flags of Aotearoa New Zealand displayed in the He Tohu Tāmaki exhibition space in front of words:'He whakapapa kōrero he whenua kura. Talking about our past to create a better future'.
Replica flags of New Zealand to support the He Tohu Tāmaki learning programmes, crafted by Sandi Faulconbridge, 2020.

A brief history of our flag

I have learnt so much about an important piece of our New Zealand culture and heritage during this process. To many of us, our flag — a blue background with the four stars of the Southern Cross and the Union Jack — has ‘always’ been our flag and we don’t think there may have been another version, or about how it came into being. To be honest, when the debate for a new flag came up in 2015, I still didn’t take an interest in what our flag had been previously.

And yet, there is a rich and interesting story behind the flags that represent who we are.

The birth of our first 'national' flag

Picture this … Waitangi, March 1834. James Busby had called a meeting of Ngāpuhi chiefs where he presented a choice of three flags. The reason — if New Zealand wanted to trade across the ocean, ships had to fly a flag.

Any vessel not showing their ‘colours’ was liable to be impounded and the cargo confiscated! Our trade vessels had been flying flags, but they were not recognised as an official representation of our country of origin. Busby had earlier requested a flag be designed, rejecting one of the initial designs because it didn't use the colour red — a sign of rank for Māori.

The Ngāpuhi chiefs voted, with Te Kara (the United Tribes flag) being the popular choice and receiving a 21-gun salute from the HMS Alligator anchored in the bay. King William IV approved the design and Te Kara o Te Whakaminenga o Nga Hapu o Nu Tireni became New Zealand’s first national flag to be used at sea and on land.

This was the flag that Busby had designed. Many of the chiefs involved in selecting the United Tribes flag went on to sign He Whakaputanga!

Shaw Savill Line postcard depicting the United Tribes Ensign
Shaw Savill Line postcard depicting the United Tribes Ensign. Ref: 82-419-01 Alexander Turnbull Library.

Choosing the United Tribes’ flag on Te Ara has more about this image that shows the selection of a national flag by Māori chiefs at Waitangi in 1834.

The Union Jack then came our third flag...

Jump forward 6 years … Waitangi, 6 February 1840. William Hobson, the new Lieutenant-Governor, immediately following the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, had the United Tribes flag taken down and replaced with the Union Jack — the flag of the United Kingdom. This was to remain our national flag for the next 62 years.

During this time, once again, the law of the sea started some changes for our flag. The United Kingdom’s Colonial Naval Defence Act of 1865 ruled that government ships from colonial countries must fly the British Blue Naval Ensign, which included a colony emblem to show where the ships were from. But because we didn't have an emblem, our government ships just flew the plain Blue Ensign. After a severe hand-slapping in 1866, the NZ government decided to design an emblem for maritime use.

The initial design in 1866 just included our initials 'NZ'. Then in 1869, four red stars with white borders representing the Southern Cross were used, which all our ships flew. In 1899, a white disk was added to surround the stars.

These flags were only used for maritime purposes. However, they were soon being used on land too. So in 1900, Premier Richard Seddon introduced a Bill to make the 1869 version the official flag of New Zealand. The Bill was eventually passed and on 24 March 1902, after King Edward VII approved the Act, New Zealand had its third national flag — known as the 'New Zealand Ensign'.

Interestingly our neighbours to the west started using their very similar flag design in 1901, with it being made official in 1903. (I wonder ... was this the start of our friendly rivalry over such things as the pavlova, Phar Lap, and Crowded House?)

Getting it right: Laying out the pieces

Much of the information I gathered (I admit) came from online research, particularly in relation to the dimensions and placement of the flag’s special features. I guess it is a closely guarded secret.

I found a lot of descriptive and clear information online, including from Archives Flickr (Te Kara), Ministry for Culture and Heritage (The New Zealand flag), and the Flag Institute (Union Jack). Several titles in our Schools Lending Collection helped confirm what I had found online. Particularly helpful were:

  • 'An Illustrated History of the Treaty of Waitangi' by Claudia Orange (2004)
  • 'Keep the Flag Flying: The History and Meaning of the New Zealand Flag' by John McLean (2015)
  • 'Waitangi Day — The New Zealand Story: What It Is and Why It Matters' by Philippa Werry (2015)
  • 'The World Encyclopedia of Flags: The Definitive Guide to International Flags, Banners, Standards and Ensigns' by Alfred Znamierowski (2013).

For more resources I used (or found really interesting), check out the reference list at the end of this post.

Red white and blue fabric laid out on a table with diagrams showing images of New Zealand flags
The start of the creation process.

Calculations and cutting, stitching and stressing

Back to my flag-making project … Armed with my long-time sewing skills, recently acquired patchworking knowledge, and dusting off my rusty maths brain (to try and decipher the little information I could find), I set to work calculating design dimensions and meterage of material needed. (Note to all you people keen to try this … remember to add seam allowances … BIG ONES!).

Whew! What a job that was. Oh, and when converting metres to millimetres, remember the decimal placement — it significantly changes the cost if you misplace the decimal point.

Technical drawings and fabric on a table with ruler, rotary cutting tool, and cutting mat
Preparing to cut out the flags.

I decided to cut ALL three flags at the same time to make sure I had the correct amount of fabric. A very slow process! It’s all about measuring a gazillion times, checking my calculations, measuring again for good measure, and then cutting. Oh, and of course, labelling each section so that I knew where it was going to go later. I also made sure the labels included the flag code (UTNZ, UJ, NZ) because honestly, one piece of material looked very like another!

So, with my trusty sidekick for company — Charlie our Shih Tzu X fur-baby — I was ready to go!

A grey dog sits on the floor of the sewing room
Charlie at work.

First under the needle: The United Tribes flag — Te Kara

After the cutting process, I started by sewing the United Tribes of New Zealand flag – Te Kara. It looked like the more straightforward of the three flags, but I really wanted to create our first official flag first! I felt even more connected to our rich history by following the same chronological path that our flags took. It also got me thinking about just how flag-makers of the day created their masterpieces.

Labelling each ‘cut’ of material as per the mock-up and laying out the sections as they would be on the finished flag made it quite easy to piece them together. Of course, only working on (sewing) one flag at a time also made life a lot less stressful.

Sewing machine sewing red, white and blue fabric together
Sewing Te Kara — the United Tribes flag.

The seams were turned at each stage of the process to give a neat and tidy double-stitch finish, but also to make sure the flags have a true double-sided look when flying.

More than four hours after starting, I had pretty much completed Te Kara — just the outer edging and the ‘hoisting’ strip to be done. I brought it into work to show the progress. Tereora Crane, our Senior Education Specialist (Culture and Heritage) who had tasked me with this project, was quite emotional on seeing the flag. It made me particularly thankful that I had taken the time to give the flag a clean, professional finish.

The trickiest task and then the stars

I'm glad I made sure to complete Te Kara before I made a start on the Union Jack, and then the New Zealand Ensign. Each flag had a different challenge, which gave me the skills (and courage) to create the next one.

The trickiest part of making the flags was creating the cross saltire (diagonals) on the Union Jack — tricky enough as an entire flag, but the smaller canton (upper left section) of our current flag was something that really got the brain working! Getting the placement right was like trying to do a jigsaw.

When it came to attaching the stars on the flags, I used two different applique processes. I wanted to add to the authentic time-period feel and try to reflect the change in technology. Te Kara has a hand-turned and tacked look as I hand-stitched the completed stars on first the front side and then the back before machining them in place. The stars on the reverse don't quite line up, though I did try my hardest (oops!).

Our current flag has a more polished, machined look as I made a sandwich of all layers for the white base-star, sewed around a template, and then (very carefully) trimmed off the excess fabric on both sides before attempting the same with the red stars. Thankfully, I managed to find some information online that gave the exact placement of the Southern Cross, which made placing the stars a lot less stressful — whew!

The flags took time, but I've learned a lot!

The overall creation process was significantly slower than I had originally thought due to the fact that there was no pattern or instructions to go by. The Te Kara flag took about 6 hours to construct but the other two flags took about 18–20 hours each! I had to make it up as I went and transfer my existing knowledge to working out how to best piece the flags together.

Needless to say, I now have extensive instructions on how to do it if I ever get asked again.

The flags' first flights

Before we started using the flags in our learning programmes, we had a small blessing ceremony led by our Poutiaki Rauemi, Ruki Tobin. We wanted to observe tikanga and show the value we placed on these representations of our New Zealand culture and heritage.

The flags' first outing ... Hokianga, 12 February 2020, Māngungu Mission Station. Services to Schools had the privilege of being invited by Heritage New Zealand to Māngungu Mission Station to attend the 180th commemoration of the largest signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, where we showcased the range of resources and services we offer. We've shared some photos from the day on our Facebook page.

Seeing the various flags flying from throughout our history, particularly those important to Northland iwi, was extremely powerful. My journey of creating our own replica flags made me understand just how much of an impact our past has on our present and future.

Our flags were on display for the local community to engage with. They generated several conversations, ranging from which flag was first, the making of the reproductions, how flags are used, to (of course) the 2015 flag referendum.

8 flags on display in front of harbour background
The flags flying outside the Māngungu Mission Station at the 180th anniversary of the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (our flags were on display inside the station).

Learnings and connections

This whole project has made me feel more connected to our history and our place in the world. It has made me realise just how rich and diverse our own young history really is.

We don’t learn much about our own place in the world at school, which I believe last year’s history curriculum announcement will help change. Maybe, this is because so often we feel that we are such a young country and, really, what have we achieved of significance, especially when other countries' histories are so much more interesting?

But New Zealand and New Zealanders ARE interesting. We do have a history of blood and battles. And we are innovative, adaptable, consistently lead the way, and are welcoming and accepting of others.

Services to Schools and He Tohu help connect our young people with resources, activities, conversations, and themes relating to three New Zealand culture and heritage taonga: He Whakaputanga, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and the Women’s Suffrage Petition. These reproduction flags are just one way that we are bringing history alive for our students.

Other helpful (or just plain interesting) resources

Online resources


  • 'Complete Flags of the World: The Ultimate Pocket Guide' by Dorling Kindersley (2014).
  • 'The Complete Guide to Flags of the World' by Brian Johnson Barker (2015).

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