Story: Flax and flax working
Page 4 – The flax fibre industry: 1860s–1930s
The flax-stripping machine
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.
Working in a flax mill
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.
Out in the wash
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.
Flax in the economy
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.
Disease and decline
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.