Flax in New Zealand
New Zealand flax describes the common New Zealand perennial plants Phormium tenax and Phormium colensoi, known by the Māori names harakeke and wharariki respectively. Although given the common name 'flax' they are quite distinct from the Northern Hemisphere plant known as flax (Linum usitatissimum)
P. tenax occurs naturally in New Zealand and Norfolk Island, while P. colensoi is endemic to New Zealand. They have played an important part in the cultural and economic history of New Zealand for both the Māori people and the later European settlers.
Traditional Māori uses
As Captain Cook wrote: “Of the leaves of these plants, with very little preparation, they (the Māori) make all their common apparel; and of these they make also their strings, lines and cordage …”. They also made baskets, mats, and fishing nets from the undressed flax. The Māori practised advanced weft twining in phormium fibre cloaks.
Plaiting and weaving (raranga) the flax fibres into baskets were but only two of the great variety of uses made of flax by Māori who recognised nearly 60 varieties, and who carefully propagated their own flax nurseries and plantations throughout the land. Leaves were cut near the base of the plant using a sharp mussel shell or specially shaped rocks, more often than not greenstone (jade, or pounamu). The green fleshy substance of the leaf was stripped off, again using a mussel shell, right through to the fibre which went through several processes of washing, bleaching, fixing, softening, dyeing and drying. The flax fibre, called muka, is laboriously washed, pounded and hand wrung to make soft for the skin. The cords (muka whenu) form the base cloth for intricate cloaks or garments (kākahu) such as the highly prized traditional feather cloak (kahu huruhuru). Different type of cloaks, such as kahu kiwi and kahu kākā, were produced by adorning them with colourful feathers from different native birds, such as kiwi, kākā (parrot), tui, huia and kererū (woodpigeon).
Fibres of various strengths were used to fashion eel traps (hinaki), surprisingly large fishing nets (kupenga) and lines, bird snares, cordage for ropes, baskets (kete), bags, mats, clothing, sandals (paraerae), buckets, food baskets (rourou), and cooking utensils etc. The handmade flax cording and ropes had such great tensile strength that they were used to successfully bind together sections of hollowed out logs to create huge ocean-going canoes (waka). With the help of wakas, pre-European Māori deployed seine nets which could be over one thousand metres long. The nets were woven from green flax, with stone weights and light wood or gourd floats, and could require hundreds of men to haul. It was also used to make rigging, sails and lengthy anchor warps, and roofs for housing. Frayed ends of flax leaves were fashioned into torches and lights for use at night. The dried flower stalks, which are extremely light, were bound together with flax twine to make river rafts called mokihi.
Photo of Rewi Manga Maniapoto in a flax cloak, 1879
For centuries, Māori have used nectar from the flowers for medicinal purposes and as a general sweetener. Boiled and crushed harakeke roots were applied externally as a poultice for boils, tumours and abscesses, as well as to varicose ulcers. Juice from pounded roots was used as a disinfectant, and taken internally to relieve constipation or expel worms. The pulp of pounded leaves was applied as dressings to bullet, bayonet or other wounds. The gum-like sap produced by harakeke contains enzymes that give it blood clotting and antiseptic qualities to help healing processes. It is a mild anaesthetic, and Māori traditionally applied the sap to boils and various wounds, to aching teeth, to rheumatic and associated pains, ringworm and various skin irritations, and scalds and burns. Splints were fashioned from korari (flower stalks) and leaves, and fine cords of muka fibre utilise the styptic properties of the gel before being used to stitch wounds. Harakeke is used as bandages and can secure broken bones much as plaster is used today.
During the early Musket Wars and later New Zealand wars, Māori used large, thickly woven flax mats to cover entrances and lookout holes in their "gunfighter's pā" fortifications. Some warriors wore coats of heavily-plaited Phormium tenax, which gave defense characteristics similar to a medieval gambeson, slowing musket balls to be wounding rather than deadly.
By the early 19th century the quality of rope materials made from New Zealand flax was known internationally, as was the quality of New Zealand trees which were used for spars and masts. The Royal Navy was one of the largest customers. The flax trade burgeoned, especially after male Māori recognised the advantages of trade and adapted to helping in the harvesting and dressing of flax which had previously been done exclusively by females. "Whole tribes sometimes relocated to swamps where flax grew in abundance but where it was decidedly unhealthy to live. The taking of slaves increased - slaves who could be put to work dressing flax...". A burgeoning flax industry developed with the fibres being used for rope, twine, matting, carpet under felt, and wool packs. Initially wild stands of flax were harvested but plantations were established with three in existence by 1851.
From about the 1860s there was an active industry harvesting and processing flax for export, peaking at 32,000 tons in 1916, but the general depression of the 1930s brought the virtual collapse of this trade. In 1963 there were still 14 flax mills producing a total of almost 5,000 tons of fibre per year, but the last of them closed in 1985.
Several times the possibility of commercial papermaking from the fibre from Phormium tenax has been investigated, but currently it is used only by artists and craftsmen producing handmade papers.
- Extraction, content, strength, and extension of Phormium variety fibres prepared for traditional Maori weaving, New Zealand Journal of Botany, 2000, Vol. 38: pg. 469.
- John Gillow and Bryan Sentance, World Textiles: A Visual Guide to Traditional Techniques, London: Thames & Hudson, 2004, p. 64, 220.
- Meredith, Paul "Te hī ika – Māori fishing" Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Updated 2 March 2009.
- Brooker, S. G; R. C Cambie; Robert C Cooper (1987). New Zealand medicinal plants. Auckland, N.Z.: Reed. ISBN 9780790002507.
- "History of the Phormium Fibre Export Trade", 1966 "An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand"
- A dangerous people whose only occupation is war: Maori and Pakeha in 19th century New Zealand Journal of Pacific History, 1997, Christina A. Thompson
- Critchfield, Howard J. (Apr–Jun 1951). "Phormium tenax--New Zealand's Native Hard Fiber". Economic Botany (New York Botanical Garden Press) 5 (2): 172–184. doi:10.1007/bf02984775.