New Zealand flax is one of the country’s most distinctive native plants. It has sword-shaped leaves 1–3 metres long that grow in a fan shape. In spring, birds – particularly tūī – flock to feed on the nectar of its tube-like flowers, which bloom on stems up to 4.5 metres long. By carrying pollen from plant to plant, the birds help flax to produce seeds in long pods.
New Zealand flax is not a true flax like linen flax (Linum usitatissimum), but related to the day lily. It belongs to the Hemerocallidaceae family and the Phormium genus. It grows naturally only in New Zealand and Norfolk Island – no other country has produced a plant quite like it. There are two confirmed species in New Zealand: Phormium tenax and Phormium cookianum.
The more common Phormium tenax is also known as harakeke or swamp flax. It has broad, stiff leaves, red flowers and upright, curving seed pods. Phormium tenax grows on lowland swamps throughout New Zealand.
Phormium cookianum, also known as wharariki or mountain flax, grows on coastal cliffs and mountain slopes. It has softer, shorter leaves than Phormium tenax, and greenish flowers, often with yellow or orange tones. The seed pods droop and are twisted.
Although it was once widespread, drainage of swamps and clearing of vegetation meant that by the late 20th century there were only small remnants of New Zealand flax.
As well as growing wild, flax has long been cultivated as a garden plant and a source of fibre. Since the 1990s there have been large-scale flax planting programmes. These help protect the environment (for example, they can stabilise riverbanks), and restore plant biodiversity. Flax can be propagated from seed or by dividing off small fans of leaves and planting them directly in the soil.
In the past Māori selected different types of flax from wild stands for specific purposes. They kept growing their favourite bushes by taking fans from the parent plant. The different cultivars were often given names. The National New Zealand Flax Collection, maintained by Landcare Research, has many examples of these cultivars.
In Māori sayings and songs flax is often a metaphor for family bonds and human relationships. It is also a national emblem, and is used in logos for local and government organisations. Although flax has been exported, it is a plant that many New Zealanders associate strongly with their homeland.
After Māori arrived in New Zealand, from around 1250, they discovered the useful properties of flax. The nectar from its flowers made a sweet drink. The roots could be crushed to make poultices for skin infections, and to produce a juice with disinfectant and laxative properties. The gum from the base of the leaves eased pain and healed wounds, especially burns. The leaves themselves could be used as bandages and to secure broken bones.
At first, Māori women used flax in the same way they had used the pandanus plant in Polynesia – weaving baskets, containers and mats from the leaves. They then learned to obtain the strong fibre (muka) from the leaves by scraping the green flesh away with a sharp shell. The muka was pounded until soft, then washed and sometimes dyed. Twisted, plaited and woven, it was used to create a wide range of items, such as fishing nets and traps, footwear, cords and ropes.
Flax became so crucial for Māori that when 19th-century missionary William Colenso told chiefs that it did not grow in England, they would reply ‘How is it possible to live there without it?’ and ‘I would not dwell in such a land as that’. 1
The first Māori arrivals had found that their tapa cloth garments, made from the aute plant (paper mulberry), were too thin. In any case the aute did not thrive in New Zealand. Muka could be woven (often with feathers and dog skin) into warm clothing – vital in New Zealand’s cooler climate.
Various types (cultivars) of flax were seen as having specific uses by different iwi (tribes). For instance, the cultivar ‘Māeneene’ was used by the Ngāi Tūhoe people of Urewera to weave fine patterned mats. Ngāti Porou sought the ‘Tākirikau’ cultivar for making piupiu (kilts). The ‘Kōhunga’ cultivar produced muka that Ngāti Maniapoto used for their finest cloaks. Whanganui tribes chose the ‘Ate’ cultivar for making eel nets and kete (baskets).
Special flax plants were tended in a plantation (pā harakeke) and there were traditions about when and how they could be harvested. The plant was seen as a family. The central shoot or rito was the baby and the leaves on either side of it the awhi rito or mātua (its parents). Only the leaves on the outside – the tūpuna, or grandparents – were cut, to avoid weakening the plant.
Flax was not just useful – it was a way of passing on culture. Through the patterns in woven articles, stories were told and beliefs affirmed. Although European clothing replaced flax garments, weaving as an art survived. After its revival in the later 20th century, less well-known flax types were grown once more. Between 1994 and 2002, a trial was carried out to see how the weaving qualities of flax cultivars change when they are grown at different locations. It was conducted by Landcare Research and the national association of Māori weavers, Te Roopu Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa. They found that the flax that is best for weaving is grown in fertile, well-watered soils with good drainage.
European explorers visiting New Zealand in the 1700s quickly saw the possible uses of flax. Rope was then in demand for rigging on sailing ships and many other purposes. Māori demonstrated their skill in ‘dressing’ flax (stripping the fibre from the leaves). They made flax ropes for visiting ships and bartered flax and weaving for European goods. This exchange of products and skills helped bring Māori and Europeans into close contact with each other for the first time.
Father and son botanists Johann and Georg Forster voyaged with explorer Captain James Cook in 1772–73. They named New Zealand flax Phormium tenax for its useful qualities – ‘phormium’ is derived from the Greek word for basket, while ‘tenax’ is Latin for strong.
Sydney merchants showed an interest in flax fibre, and by the 1820s a trade began with Australia, peaking in the early 1830s. Trading stations were set up on the coasts of Northland, Waikato, Taranaki, Coromandel, the Bay of Plenty, the East Coast, Southland, both sides of Cook Strait, and Banks Peninsula. Fibre exported from New Zealand to Australia could be re-exported to Britain at a good profit. In 1831, for instance, a ton of flax that sold for between £13 and £22 in Sydney fetched between £27 and £44 in Britain.
The Māori producers were not paid in cash but in goods – usually muskets. The trade therefore had a lasting impact on Māori society. With firearms, conflicts between tribes turned into full-scale wars. Tribes competed for control of the flax trade and thus the supply of muskets. They moved from their traditional homelands to be closer to trading posts and to the swamps where flax grew. Food cultivation was neglected in favour of the new trade.
The flax trade declined in the 1830s for several reasons. Warfare among Māori sometimes held up supply. Hand stripping of flax could not provide the amount required. Supplies of fibre for export varied in both quantity and quality. For the market to revive, flax fibre needed to be produced more efficiently.
In the 1860s, war between Māori and British settlers ended the manual production of flax fibre – a Māori-dominated activity. During this decade, inventions for stripping fibre from flax mechanically were trialled. A machine that beat the flax leaf between a revolving metal drum and a fixed metal bar proved the best. The fibre it produced was coarser than that from hand-stripped flax, but greater quantities could be processed. A machine could produce about 250 kilograms per day, while stripping by hand produced about 1 kilogram. Over time the mechanical flax stripper was improved. By 1910 it could turn out 1.27 tonnes of fibre per day.
By 1870 there were 161 flax mills nationwide, with 1,766 workers. Most mills were sited near a flax swamp and employed between 20 and 50 ‘flaxies’. Groups of Māori often worked on contract cutting flax. The main flax-milling region was Manawatū, where the largest mills were built after 1890. There were also mills in Northland, Waikato, the Bay of Plenty, Wairarapa, Marlborough, Canterbury, Otago, Southland and on the West Coast.
Flax milling was hard work. First the flax leaves (usually Phormium tenax) were cut, tied in bundles and taken to the mill. Then the leaves were fed through the stripping machine, which made a loud shrieking noise. A worker sat underneath the machine in the so-called ‘glory hole’ to catch the slimy fibre and bunch it. Hanks of fibre were then washed in running water and hung out to dry and bleach in paddocks. About ten days later, the dry fibre was put through a scutching machine, which refined it further. Finally the fibre was packed into bales. Although most was exported, some was processed locally into ropes and cordage.
Labourer James Cox kept a diary of the trials of working in ‘the wash’ at Manawatū flax mills between 1888 and 1891. Because he had to bend over and clean hanks of flax fibre in a trough of water, he got soaked. In summer he was uncomfortable and in winter he was cold and miserable. ‘I get wet in the legs every day and catch cold on cold’ he wrote in June 1891, shortly before quitting the job in despair. 1
Because working conditions were tough and jobs were often insecure, trade unions such as the Manawatu Flaxmill Employees Union were formed. Some well-known unionists and politicians, including Michael Joseph Savage, Tim Armstrong and Tom Shand, once worked in the flax industry.
At times during the industry’s peak, between 1901 and 1918, flax fibre made up almost 5% of the value of principal exports. But while there were booms, there were also periods when many mills were forced to close. Prices on the world market varied. They were influenced by the availability of other natural fibres from other countries. The need for flax fibre increased during wartime, when some countries were unable to keep up their usual supply. But some changes in technology, such as steam ships taking over from sailing ships (which had needed ropes), reduced demand for flax fibre.
A major problem for the industry in the early 1900s was the ‘yellow leaf’ disease, which caused flax to die. Yellow leaf is now thought to be caused by a bacterium spread by plant-hopper insects. Various remedies were tried. They included flooding plantations, using different cutting techniques and growing resistant varieties. But results were mixed.
This problem, along with less demand for flax, meant that by the 1920s the industry was in decline. When world-wide economic depression hit in the 1930s its collapse seemed imminent.
The New Zealand flax industry was saved in the 1930s by the growth of manufacturing. There was a deliberate switch from exporting fibre to processing it for local use. Flax mills in the Manawatū region began to supply the Foxton factory of New Zealand Woolpack and Textiles Ltd, which made flax fibre into woolpacks for farmers. More factories opened, and other goods were made, including underfelt, floor coverings, upholstery materials and binder twine.
During the Second World War, the government promoted the growing of linen flax (a different species from New Zealand flax) in Marlborough, Canterbury, Otago and Southland. Linen cloth was urgently needed by Britain for aircraft construction and other uses. With the German invasion of the Netherlands and Belgium, the usual sources of supply were lost, so allies like New Zealand were asked to help. But when the war ended, this new fibre industry faded away.
The manufacturing industry managed to survive for the next 50 years mainly because of government support. In 1936 the government restricted imports of woolpacks made from Indian jute. In 1939 it bought the Moutoa Swamp near Shannon as an experimental flax plantation. During the Second World War it helped the flax industry because it was supplying farmers and the military. After the war, government subsidies and import restrictions on fibres from overseas kept the industry going. The removal of government protection in the 1970s and competition from synthetic fibres hastened the end. The last flax manufacturing plant closed in 1985.
In the 2000s the trend towards using natural products made from renewable resources sparked fresh interest in flax. For many years flax was used to make high-quality paper. It is now the basis of craft and florists’ products. The soothing gel from the base of New Zealand flax leaves is used in skincare products, such as those produced by the New Zealand company Living Nature. There is still scope to exploit the medicinal and nutritional properties of the plant. The oil from linen flax seed is known to help some health problems. But as yet, New Zealand flax seed oil has not been manufactured, although it contains linoleic acid – vital for human nutrition.
In the 2000s scientists began to explore different uses for flax. The Biomaterials Engineering unit at Scion, Rotorua, is investigating ways to improve the strength and performance of flax fibre by combining it with other natural fibres such as hemp and wood, and synthetics such as glass fibre. Results are encouraging, and the material also looks attractive. Future uses include building materials, furniture and packaging.
Another project, started by Industrial Research and textile conservator Rangi Te Kanawa, looked at ways of softening flax fibre so when woven it could be made fine enough for fashion clothing. In 2006 a company, Muka Ltd, was seeking a patent for a mechanical stripping device, in order to start production.
Work by AgResearch (a Crown research institute) found that the leaf material left over from flax stripping makes a wholesome stock food. Another AgResearch project examined how flax planted along waterways can absorb nitrogen, reducing problems caused by liquid waste runoff.
In 2003 the Sustainable Farming Fund began an overview project to bring together research on the environmental and commercial benefits of flax and promote wider use of this natural resource. A plant with a rich history, New Zealand flax clearly has a promising future.
Hindmarsh, Gerard. ‘Flax: the enduring fibre.’ New Zealand Geographic 42 (April–June 1999): 20–53.
Matheson, Ian. ‘Flax town.’ In Foxton 1888–1988: the first 100 years, edited by A. N. Hunt. Foxton: Foxton Borough Council, 1987.
Salmond, Anne. Between worlds: early exchanges between Māori and Europeans, 1773–1815. Auckland: Viking, 1997.
Scheele, Sue, and Geoff Walls. Harakeke: the Rene Orchiston Collection. Rev. ed. Lincoln: Manaaki Whenua Press, 1994.
On the Royal Society of New Zealand website, this booklet by Judith Jones describes the many uses of flax, and the development of the New Zealand flax fibre industry.
On the Techhistory website, an article by Ian Matheson on the history of flax milling.