The fibre in flax

26 May 2008

flax lace collarWhat do forty-two kilometres of rope used in Nelson’s sailing ship, HMS Victory, a traditional Māori feather cloak, and the Victorian lace collar in the photo all have in common? They’re all made with strong, thin fibres that have been stripped from the leaves of the New Zealand flax plant. For hundreds of years, Māori used this fibre to make clothes, ropes, fishing nets and bird snares. Later, European immigrants developed large-scale rope manufacturing using a stripping machine that could process up to 250 kilograms of fibre a day.

extracting fibre using a mussel shellThread stripped from the leaf by hand is a much finer thread than thread stripped by machine. In traditional hand-stripping, a mussel shell is scraped along the length of a strip of flax, forcing the green fleshy outer layer of the leaf down through and away from the fibres, and leaving the fibres clean and clearly separated into individual threads. With machine stripping, the whole leaf is put into a revolving metal drum where wooden paddles beat the green pulp off the fibre. The pulped leaves are then put through a scrutching machine which dresses the fibre by removing the short fibres and cleaning off any remaining particles. However this process doesn’t clean or separate the fibres completely, so machine-made flax thread is thicker and rougher.

fibre extracted using a mussel shellThe difference between fibres produced by hand and those produced by machine became very clear to me while I was preparing a talk on flax weaving for the 2008 conference of the New Zealand Lace Society. I thought lace-makers might find it interesting if the talk included a demonstration of lace-making with flax fibre, even though I hadn’t tried this before. However, I’d had plenty of experience with linen and cotton fibre because I used to be heavily involved in lace-making and the NZ Lace Society. So the talk was a good chance to catch up with old friends — and I also caught up with a participant of my flax-weaving workshops who had used flax fibre she had stripped by hand to make an award-winning entry in this years’ lace competition.

As well as giving a demonstration, I wanted to give the participants the opportunity to have a go at making bobbin lace with flax fibre themselves. I already had some machine-made flax fibre that I’d purchased from the Templeton Flaxmill Museum near Riverton, but this proved to be just too irregular and thick to wind easily on lace bobbins, so I prepared the flax fibre by hand. Although fibre can be stripped from many different varieties of Phormium tenax, I wanted to use the very best varieties, so I approached the National New Zealand Flax Collection at Landcare in Lincoln and received permission to gather leaves from two of the traditional weaving flaxes, Arawa and Makewero, that are both known for their long, clean fibres. I stripped the leaves in the traditional Māori way — with a mussel shell — for the first time, and have just updated my Preparing flax page with a some tips on the difference between stripping flax with a mussel shell and a blunt knife.

Before setting up the lace pillows for lace-making with the flax fibre, I examined the lace collar shown at the beginning of this post. This formed the subject of a talk at the conference by Jennifer Quérée, Senior Curator of Decorative Arts at the Canterbury Museum. The collar was made by a Mrs Williams, and it received a special mention at the 1906 New Zealand International Exhibition. I noticed that it was woven with four strands of flax fibre per thread, and that the fibres hadn’t been twisted to make the thread.

bobbin lace pillowWhen making rope or a traditional Maori feather cloak, or in the threads traditionally used for lace-making, the strands of fibre are invariably twisted together to make a thread. This makes the thread stronger and allows new fibres to be twisted in, so that the thread can be much longer than the original fibres. However, after examining Mrs Williams’ work, and experimenting with flax fibre myself, it became clear that Mrs Williams knew what she was doing. Twisted flax fibre is just too thick for lace-making in the traditional method, so her four-strand fibres were limited to the length of the leaves from a flax plant.

For the demonstration, I set up one lace pillow with the bobbins wound with four strands per thread, and another pillow with bobbins wound with a single strand per thread. Participants who tried weaving lace with the four-strand bobbins found it quite difficult. The single-strand bobbins were easier to work with, but — compared with the threads traditionally used for lace-making — flax fibre is quite stiff and isn’t as slippery, so this makes it harder to tension the weaving. Also, each single fibre is made up of even finer strands which tends to make the thread quite fluffy.

All in all, it it became clear to all of us that Mrs Williams’ collar must have been a very challenging piece of work, and — like a traditional Māori feather cloak — it would also have taken rather a long time to weave.

Errata 3 Jun 2008
Since I first wrote this post I’ve made two corrections in it in light of Jennifer Quérée’s comment below — the lace collar was made by a Mrs Williams, and I originally referred to her as Mrs Williamson. Also, the collar received a special mention at the Exhibition but didn’t win an award. Jennifer’s comment provides additional information on the collar.

14 Responses to “The fibre in flax”

  1. Jennifer Queree Says:

    Hi Ali - nice to see your comments re the muka collar in the collection of Canterbury Museum. Just to clarify a couple of points for your readers: the maker of the collar was Mrs Elizabeth Williams (formerly Derby, nee Rose) of Toko, Taranaki. Mrs Williams, a professional lacemaker originally from Weston Underwood in Buckinghamshire (UK), adapted a tape or “Battenberg” commercial pattern to a traditional Bedfordshire bobbin lace style. The collar was made in about 1905 for her eldest daughter, and was exhibited at the Home Industries Section of the NZ International Exhibition in Christchurch in 1906. Although it received special mention it did not in fact win an award as it was a non-competitive exhibit. Together with another example of flax lace by Mrs Williams, this unique collar will be on loan to the Pataka Museum (Wellington, NZ) for the “Amazing Lace” exhibition during June-August 2008. Any inquiries about the collar or Mrs Williams, can be addressed to me at Canterbury Museum - jqueree@canterburymuseum.com

  2. Ali Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. Whoops! Two mistakes on my part. As you’ll see, I’ve corrected the blog post.

  3. Lovey Marshall Says:

    looking forward to receiving your book Ali.
    Keep up the good work.

  4. Richard Umbers Says:

    Hi

    I am looking for a source to purchase flax fibre for weaving and wondered if you could advise me where I could get this

    Thanks

    Richard

  5. Ali Says:

    Hi Richard

    The only source of fibre that I know of is the Templeton Flax Museum. However the fibre produced from a mill is really just shredded flax rather than the fine muka fibre that is obtained by completely stripping the outer green fleshy part of the leaf off the fibres. The shredded flax from the mill is irregular in width and lumpy and bumpy. The fibres are also clumped together so it’s a bit of a task to extract single fibres for weaving.

  6. Tom Allan Says:

    Tena koe. I have been scraping flax for years as my wife weaves traditional korowai. I have tried just about everything to find the best tool for scraping. Knives, plane blades, wide chisels, glass just to mention a few. I have found that the mussel shell is the best tool for the job.

    To try and save some time, I sent a load of flax to a museum in foxton who put it through their threshing mill. Not a good idea as the muka still needed to have a large anount of green leaf removed before it was any good. Took even longer to get the muka than just plain scraping. Oh well. Live and learn. Kia ora.
    Tom

  7. Ali Says:

    Tena koe Tom

    Thank you for writing about your experiences with different scraping tools. It’s good to hear from someone with many years of experience about the best method they have found.

    I agree with you about the mechanical processing of flax for extracting the fibre. The result really is shredded flax rather than flax fibre, or muka, isn’t it?

    Do you find it’s best to scrape the flax while it’s freshly cut? Do you have any other tips for extracting the fibre from the flax? I’m sure others would be very happy to hear about them.

    Kia ora

  8. chamain gibbs Says:

    Hi Ali, In my experience when stripping my harakeke it pays to test your strip as you go along. Some strips like to be scraped there and then others like to be left a day, yet others like to be soaked in water overnight. I call it a me thing if it doesn’t work with a ten minute soak I go longer. My cousin Jaqui Keelan gave me some lovely harakeke. I got it home but didnt have enough time to strip it all that night and the next day it was hard to extract, so I soaked it then got busy with mahi. A week went by, went out, changed the water, and the pare just came away.I just love playing with muka.

  9. Ali Says:

    Hi Chamain
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge about stripping harakeke. I’ll try this way next time.

  10. Kari Sheahan Says:

    I was looking at your Victorian lace, and I’ve been looking for different materials to use. I crochet fine threads, cords, twine and string. I am interested to see if you had anything in Flax. Also I like to see if you might have a catalog and maybe some weaving or netting instructions, and possibly conversion of cost to U.S. dollar :)
    Thanks,
    And Have a Great Day!
    Kari

  11. Ali Says:

    Hi Kari

    Thanks for your email. I don’t sell flax fibre but if you have access to New Zealand flax or Phormium Tenax, you can extract fibre from it yourself, as you can see on this blog post. Also if you go to the Instructions page it will take you to a number of weaving projects using flax. You may also be interested in my book Weaving Flowers from New Zealand Flax which you can buy directly from me. All the information about buying the book, including postage to the US, is on the Book page of my web site.

  12. Haumoana Says:

    The Haka Shop will be producing muka for purchasing soon. We have a variety of muka harakeke and only hand strip the fibre for a cleaner end result. They can be purchased in hanks of 50 whenu. 10-12 hank approx is required for a child to small adult size korowai project to give you an idea. We can provide a aho thread also in hanks of 50 or muka whenu for you to miro your own. We produce to order or supply on demand, email us for more information. April 2016

  13. Lee Martin Says:

    I would like to order some muka. Can you give me an idea of price please.

  14. Ali Says:

    Hello Lee

    The Haka Shop is the one selling muka. You can contact them at thehakashop@xtra.co.nz

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