Story: Flax and flax working
Page 5 – Industry changes: 1930s–2000s
A manufacturing industry
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.
Researching new uses
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.