History of the Phormium Fibre Export Trade
Sydney merchants sent ships to New Zealand to collect fibre in 1810,1813, and 1814, without success; but in 1815 the Active, returning to Sydney with Samuel Marsden, had phormium fibre in the cargo. By 1828 trade with Sydney was established when 60 tons of fibre exported to Sydney were reexported to England for £2,600. In 1830, 841 tons exported to Sydney at £17 a ton, brought 45 a ton in England. Experiments in manufacturing sailcloth and paper from the fibre were carried out in England. “An Account of the Phormium tenax or New Zealand flax”, written by John Murray, was printed on paper made from flax in 1836. But most of the exported fibre was used in rope-making. Ropes from phormium were tested in Portsmouth as early as 1819, and in Sydney in 1820 with some success; but ropes made under the Harris patent at Grimsby came in for adverse criticism between 1832 and 1835. The other hard fibres, manila (from the Philippines) and sisal (from Mexico) proved of better quality. There was evidence from dockyards and sailing ships that flax rope swelled in wet weather, would not stand splicing, and wore badly. Rope-walks, where rope was twisted by hand, were established in New Zealand by the early settlers – the first at Wellington in 1843.
A set of hand machines for dressing flax according to the Donlan process was brought out to New Zealand by Luke Nattrass in 1844, but until 1860 flax was mostly hand-dressed by the Maoris. With the outbreak of the Maori war and consequent decrease in fibre output by the Maoris, there was renewed activity by the Europeans in New Zealand to produce better flax-dressing machines. In 1861 Messrs Purchas and Ninnis patented a machine which they claimed produced fibre similar in appearance to manila. Luke Nattrass invented a mechanical and chemical process, and applied for a patent in 1871.
Production (over 300 mills were in operation) and export (over 6,000 tons) reached a peak in 1873. The shortage of manila during the American Civil War and subsequent improvement in price on the American market stimulated the boom in New Zealand's output. This was followed by a depression, and in 1880 there were only 40 mills in operation. Many of the early flaxmillers, like the sawmillers and gumdiggers, worked an area until it was exhausted and then moved on to another suitable site, or, if the market was bad, closed down altogether.
Although New Zealand trade, on the whole, was still suffering from a depression in 1889, there was a sharp rise in production of phormium fibre. This was due to a temporary decrease in output of manila and sisal; also to the extensive use of automatic binders and manufacture of binder-twine, for which phormium proved suitable. In 1890, 21,000 tons of fibre were exported. The subsequent decline in export was in line with the diminishing use of sailing ships and of rope. A rise in export in 1900 was caused by a shortage of sisal during the Spanish-American War, and in 1902 a compulsory grading system improved the quality of phormium fibre. There were 240 mills in production in 1905, and by 1907 export prices and quantities rose to £31 a ton, and 28,000 tons. Once again a depression followed the boom.
Fibres were in great demand during the First World War, and phormium reached the maximum export total of 32,000 tons in 1916, and highest average price of £52 a ton in 1918. The price had dropped to £25 a ton by 1923, when only 12,000 tons went overseas, and the general depression of the 1930s brought the virtual collapse of the flax export trade. A little fibre was exported during the Second World War, and there are records of some sent abroad in 1946, 1949, and 1951. Since then all the phormium that is produced is used in New Zealand. The 14 flax mills working in 1963 produced a total of almost 5,000 tons of fibre.