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Flax

THE NEW ZEALAND FLAXMILLING INDUSTRY

By Ian Matheson

Phormium tenax (commonly known as ”harakeke” or ”native flax”) has played an important part in the history of Aotearoa/New Zealand, for inside the long green leaves of this plant there lies a strong white fibre, suitable for the manufacture of cordage and textiles.

The Maori people utilised this fibre for hundreds of years, extracting it from the leaf with a mussel shell and preparing it for weaving or plaiting by a slow and laborious process of scraping, washing and beating.

Europeans were quick to appreciate the commercial possibilities of phormium fibre and between the 1820s and the 1860s a considerable trade in hand-dressed fibre was carried on between Maori and European. Most of the fibre produced in this period was exported to rope makers in Australia and Britain but after 1840 a small cordage industry was established in New Zealand and several rope makers began to produce ropes and twines for the local market and for export.

A Productivity Boosting Invention

The production of phormium fibre on a large scale did not commence until the late 1860s, when a machine was invented to beat the green leaf between a revolving metal drum and a fixed metal bar. Metal beaters on the surface of the drum struck the leaf at great speed, stripping away the non-fibrous material and releasing the strands of fibre. This machine (which became known as a ”stripper”) produced a much coarser fibre than the Maori hand-dressing process, but one machine could produce about 250 kilograms (a quarter of a tonne) of fibre per day, whereas one Maori worker (using a mussel shell) could produce only one kilogram of fibre in the same time. By 1910 the stripper had been improved to the point where it was capable of producing 1.27 tonnes of fibre per day.

A Full-scale Industry is Born

The invention of the flax stripper led to the development of an industry known as ”flax milling”, which was a distinctive feature of the New Zealand economy from the 1860s until the 1970s. Flax mills were established on the edges of flax swamps throughout the country and could be easily distinguished from other factories by the strange sound made by the stripper - a high-pitched whine or scream, which could be heard over a considerable distance. Flax mills were also characterised by the rows and rows of fibre which could be seen drying on the ground or hanging over fences in the vicinity of the mill. Each stripper required about 20 acres of drying paddocks.

Most flax mills were small in size, containing only one or two strippers. However, they were an important source of employment, for each stripper provided work for 20-25 men. Flax leaves were cut by hand in the swamp, tied in bundles, carted to the mills and then fed through the stripper (two or three leaves at a time). After being washed in running water, the fibre was dried and bleached in the open air for several days and then cleaned in a machine known as a ”scutcher” (which consisted of a revolving wooden drum with beaters attached). The fibre was then pressed into bales, tied with ropes and carted to the nearest port or railway station for transport to market. Most of the fibre was exported to Australia, Britain and North America, where it was manufactured into rope and twine, but a small quantity was also spun into cordage within New Zealand.

Manawatu becomes the Industry Home

The largest flax mills in New Zealand (containing between four and seven strippers) were erected in the Manawatu region, which became the centre of the flax milling industry after the year 1890. Important improvements in swamp management, flax cultivation, mill design and mechanical efficiency were pioneered in Manawatu and exported to other flax milling regions, which included Northland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Marlborough, Canterbury, Otago, Southland and Westland.

Fluctuating Markets

The flax milling industry experienced many ups and downs as a result of fluctuating prices on world markets. Boom periods occurred in 1869-1873, 1889-1893 and 1899-1907, with the peak of production being reached in 1907, when about 240 mills exported 36,140 tonnes of fibre. After another boom during the First World War (1914-1918), a disease in the flax swamps of Manawatu led to a decline in production, coinciding with a period of unstable prices on overseas markets, caused by increasing competition from other natural fibres.

A Local Market

The export market collapsed during the world-wide economic depression of the 1930s, but the flax milling industry was saved from extinction by the development of a local market for flax woolpacks (a coarse bagging material used for covering bales of wool). This industry was established in the Manawatu region, where a large woolpack factory was built at Foxton in 1934. The output of this factory was protected from overseas competition in 1936, when the New Zealand Government introduced restrictions on the importation of jute woolpacks and commenced to subsidise the production of flax packs.

Government Support

During the Second World War (1939-1945), when supplies of imported fibres were disrupted by the war in South-East Asia, the Government gave increased financial support to the flax woolpack and flax cordage industries, in order to ensure that New Zealand had suffcient fibre for agricultural and military purposes. This support included the purchase of a large flax swamp in Manawatu, the acquisition of a controlling interest in the woolpack factory at Foxton, and the building of two small flax mills in other parts of the country.

After the war the Government continued to support the flax industry as a means of protecting New Zealand manufacturers from the possible loss of imported fibres, caused by political instability in other parts of the world. Government subsidies on flax production, together with import restrictions on jute and other fibres, enabled about 15-20 flax mills to operate between 1950 and 1970, producing 5000-6000 tonnes of fibre each year. Most of this fibre was used for the manufacture of woolpacks, which were produced in sufficient quantity to meet about one-third of the country’s requirements. Other phormium products included baler twine (used for tying up bales of hay), floor coverings, carpet under felt, upholsterer’s padding and fibrous plaster.

Synthetic Fibres Take Over

Government protection was removed during the 1970s, when manufacturers decided to replace flax fibre with cheaper synthetic fibres such as polypropylene, polyethylene and polyester. The last flax mill in New Zealand, which produced fibre for padding and carpet under felt, ceased operation in 1985. 

©Ian Matheson 2000.

Ian is an archivist and local historian who is writing a detailed history of the flax milling industry. He would be pleased to hear from people who have family associations with the industry in Manawatu or other parts of the country.

He can be contacted at the Archives Office, Palmerston North City Library, P.O. Box 1948, Palmerston North, or at 10 Carlton Avenue, Palmerston North.

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There is now a museum in Foxton where a flax stripper and a scutcher can be seen operating. There is also a "flax walk" which includes both original varieties and cultivars.