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New Zealand Flax

27 May 2007

This page: History - Other uses - Flax in UK - Flax weaving - References



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By the time Captain Cook visited New Zealand in 1769 it had already been inhabited for almost a thousand years by the Maoris who originated from Polynesia. They brought with them their skills at using various plants in their daily life. They soon realised that the native plants that we now know as phormiums or New Zealand Flax, were ideal substitutes for the palms and other plants they had used in their homelands.

The long strap-like leaves were ideal for plaiting into mats, containers, shoes and even shelters. (The name Phormium comes from the Greek word phormos meaning basket, a traditional product of New Zealand flax.) Strong flexible fibre could also be extracted from the leaves for weaving into clothing, or for making rope and fishing nets.

The flowers provided nectar for sweetening and pollen for cosmetic use and the strong but light flower stems could be used for building and for making rafts. The roots were a source of medicinal products. The Maoris became, and still remain, very skilled at selecting, preparing and working with New Zealand Flax. 

Europeans soon saw the benefits of New Zealand flax as a replacement for normal Linum flax and from the 1820s till the 1970s there was a thriving flax industry in New Zealand. Following the introduction of mechanical flax stripping machines in the 1860s, thousands of tons of flax fibre were exported to Great Britain, mainly for rope making.

Gradually, however, the introduction of synthetic materials and the development of inexpensive sources of other plant fibres meant the the New Zealand Flax industry went into decline and the last flax mills closed down in the 1980s.

Phormium tenax (Maori - 'Harakeke') is still cultivated for weaving and plaiting and many of the old Maori cultivars are now being conserved. Landcare Research in New Zealand, have set up experimental plantings of Maori weaving flax varieties in various parts of New Zealand. The results have been published in He Korero Korari, No.13, November 2004. (ISSN 1175-5350)

Phormium tenax - weaving varieties.
Experimental plantings of Phormium tenax varieties investigated by Landcare Research in New Zealand - Photo: Warwick Harris

Traditional baskets and food containers are still used in New Zealand but Maori work is also produced and sold as souvenirs for visitors. There are also a number of people producing artworks using flax and leisure courses on flax weaving are popular.



Other uses of New Zealand Flax


Paper making

The fibre extracted from phormium leaves can be used to produce paper and there have been several attempts at commercial production. Most of these were short-lived and there are now only a few people making paper as a specialised craft industry.

Other products

The nectar from the flowers is used in sweet-making and the waxy secretions of the leaves are sometimes incorporated into soaps and other cosmetics.

Flower arranging

One popular use of phormiums is in the art of flower arranging. The long, colourful leaves of phormiums are ideal for using in various ways. Whole leaves can be used to provide height in an arrangement or they can be coiled, twisted, folded, cut and plaited for special effects. They last for a long time after cutting and the variegated and coloured edged varieties add interesting textures and lines to the arrangement.



New Zealand Flax in the UK

  In this country phormiums are almost always grown as garden plants. They are commonly planted as ornamental features along urban roadsides and in municipal town centre gardens.

There is a small market for cut leaves for use in flower arranging but most arrangers use leaves from their own garden plants for this purpose.

Because of the general lack of suitable material there is very little interest in flax weaving or other crafts. As far as we are aware there are none of the traditional Maori cultivars grown in this country so anyone wishing to experiment with flax has to make do with the leaves of ornamental cultivars or general garden forms of P. tenax.

There are a number of books available from New Zealand that give detailed instructions for preparing and working with flax. Some of the items that we have made by following such instructions are illustrated below.


Flax weaving


A 4 ply plait from Phormium 'Veitchianum'

A simple plait using P. tenax leaves


A small mat made using the windmill knot


Traditional Maori basket or 'kete'
Our first attempt at producing a traditional basket or 'kete'.


A flax caterpillar made from a leaf of Phormium 'Jester'


A weaving pattern

A length of string produced by twisting raw phormium fibres.


     Fresh leaf    After drying

Piupiu is where small sections of fibre are exposed, then the leaf left to dry and roll up. The resulting strips are often dyed to colour the exposed fiber then used to produce the traditional Maori skirts.





Anon. (1871), Catalogue of the Samples of Fibres and Manufactured Articles prepared from The Phormium Tenax: Exhibited by the Flax Commissioners in the Colonial Museum, Wellington, August 1981, Thomas W. McKenzie, Printer, Willis Street, Wellington, New Zealand.

A fascinating list of Phormium products and prices at the end of the 19th century.

Bell, E.F. and Young, F. (1842). Reasons for promoting the cultivation of the New Zealand Flax, Smith, Elder and Co., Cornhill, London.

The authors outline the economic arguments for developing the N.Z Flax industry in New Zealand and the possible benefits to both the "colony" of New Zealand and the "mother-country".

Harris, W. (2000). Extraction, content, strength, and extension of Phormium variety fibres prepared for traditional Maori weaving, New Zealand Journal of Botany, 2000, Vol. 38: 469-487

A study of the characteristics of Phormium fibres extracted by traditional Maori methods from eleven different varieties originally collected by Rene Orchiston  and now established at Landcare Research, Lincoln.

Klundert, Jan van de (1996). Te Kono Naku Raranga Harakeke, Nga Puna Waihanga, Rotorua, New Zealand. ISBN 0 473 03871 4

An introduction to the techniques of working with flax and instructions for making various functional and decorative items.

Mead, Hirini Moko (1999), Te Whatu Taniko, Reed Books, Birkenhead, Auckland, New Zealand. ISBN 0 7900 0697 0

The techniques and traditions of Taniko weaving - a specialised method of weaving New Zealand Flax fibre to produce clothing decorated with beautiful geometric patterns.

Pendergrast, Mick (1987). Fun with Flax, Reed Books, Birkenhead, Auckland, New Zealand. ISBN 0 7900 0053 9

The book describes 50 simple and entertaining projects designed to teach beginners the basic skills of Maori plaiting.

Pendergrast, Mick (1987). Te Aho Tapu - The Sacred Thread, Reed Books, Birkenhead, Auckland, New Zealand. ISBN 0 7900 0328 7

A celebration of Maori women's weaving. The book gives a brief outline of the history and techniques of weaving and contains many beautiful photographs and detailed drawings of Maori cloaks. 

Pendergrast, Mick (2000). Te Mahi Kete, Maori Flaxcraft for Beginners, Reed Books, Birkenhead, Auckland, New Zealand. ISBN 0 7900 9744 4

An introduction to the use of New Zealand Flax for traditional Maori plaiting and weaving. The book gives detailed illustrated instructions for producing a satchel, bucket and hat.

Shep, S.J. (1997), The Paper Record: Phormium tenax and New Zealand Papermaking, BSANZ Bulletin, v.21 no.3, 1997, 135-164

A fascinating review of the history of paper making using Phormium tenax. It includes some interesting photographs and drawings.

Shep, S.J. (1999), New Zealand Paper Trails: Experimentation with Alternate Fibres in the Nineteenth Century, Looking at Paper: Evidence & Interpretation - Symposium Proceedings, Toronto 1991.

The history of the attempts to develop a paper industry based on indigenous fibre plants such as Phormium tenax and Carex spp.

Scheele, S. and Walls, G. (1994). Harakeke: the Rene Orchiston collection, Manaaki Whenua Press, Lincoln, New Zealand. ISBN 0 478 04507 7

A catalogue of Maori flax cultivars collected and maintained in cultivation by Rene Orchiston. The booklet includes descriptions of about 50 flaxes and an account of their traditional uses.

Ayson, Bob (1977), MIRANIU - The story of New Zealand's largest flax mill, Southern Press Ltd., Wellington, New Zealand.

An interesting account of the Miranui (Maori for "big mill") flaxmill that operated from 1907 to 1933. There are a large number of old photographs of the mill, its machinery and workers ("Flaxies")



Internet links


Erena McNeil

Erena McNeill produces beautiful lamps, sculptures, baskets, wall hangings etc. using New Zealand flax and other materials.

Lamps and a miniature kete made by Erena McNeill


New Zealand Flax . . . in floral art

Examples of the use of phormium leaves in floral art. The article includes detailed instructions for using phormium leaves in a project.

The New Zealand Flax Milling Industry, Ian Matheson

A brief account of the history and development of the flax milling industry in New Zealand.

Foxton Historical society, New Zealand

There are a large number of old photographs of flax milling in the area.

Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research

Manaaki is a Maori word meaning to cherish, conserve, and sustain. Whenua encompasses the soil, rocks, plants, animals and the people inhabiting the land. Landcare Research is seeking to understand the land, how to use it and how it keep it in good health.


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