Making flax paper

13 December 2011

I recently took part in my second paper-making workshop with Mark Lander, a well-known Canterbury artist, who constructs sculptural artworks with paper made from New Zealand flax. Mark often paints his sculptures with naturally-coloured clays that he has collected from the local hills. Pictured here is a sculptural installation he made with very long sheets of flax paper.

As flax weavers know, flax has tough fibres and a very high fibre content. Indeed, some of the traditional forms of Māori weaving involve stripping flax right down to the pure fibre. For paper making, it is the high fibre content that makes flax a particularly suitable raw material.

For the technically-minded, when paper is made with any sort of plant fibre, the fibres lock together in a process called hydrogen bonding. Plants rely on cellulose for the strength in their branches and leaves, and paper is essentially a network of cellulose fibres held together by these hydrogen bonds.

Making paper with flax follows the same basic process as hand-making any sort of paper, and there are plenty of instructions for paper-making on the internet, most of which use scrap commercial paper as the raw material for hand-made paper. If one uses plant leaves for all or part of the raw materials, they can generally be softened enough for the first step in making paper by cutting them into small pieces and boiling them in water for a couple of hours, but flax is so tough it needs an extra step.

To reduce the flax into small pieces, Mark bashes the flax leaves with a piece of wood to begin to split them apart and soften them (which is quicker than stripping them right down to the fibre). He then cuts the leaves crosswise with a Stanley knife, leaving pieces about 5 mm long. Another option can be found in Making paper in New Zealand, a book by May Davis, which contains clear, easy-to-follow instructions for making flax paper. May does not bash the flax and suggests removing the hard midrib of the flax leaf and cutting the leaves into 1 cm pieces with scissors. The extra step in making paper with flax involves using a solution of caustic soda in a stainless steel pot. (If the pot is aluminium, it will be eaten away by the caustic soda and will give off flammable hydrogen gas.) You can buy solid caustic soda from a hardware store or supermarket. Handle it carefully and make it up into a solution, using about half a cup of caustic soda for a large potful of water.

Place the flax pieces in an empty stainless steel pot, and then add enough caustic soda solution to cover them. Boil the pieces about 40 minutes to an hour until they change colour. Alternatively, you can soak the pieces for a few days without boiling. Rinse the caustic soda from the pulp in a sieve under cold running water. From here on, you can follow standard paper-making instructions. If you want your paper to have an even texture you will need to run the blender for several minutes for each blender load. If you want a rough look with visible pieces of flax, you can miss out the blending operation for a small proportion of the pulp, and/or include a few longer pieces when you initially cut the flax pieces.

For those who want to make paper in bulk, Mark has developed and manufactures the Hollander beater shown here, which he sells and exports at a fraction of the cost of other manufacturers of Hollanders. The Hollander takes the place of a blender and pulps the fibres rather than slicing them, which results in a higher quality paper-making pulp.

In the workshop, we made large sheets of flax paper and left them in the sun to dry completely before peeling them off the frame. The other workshop participants were artists making paper to paint on. For my part, I’m not sure what I’ll use the paper for and am still awaiting inspiration. Mainly, I participated in the workshops to learn more about another use for flax, and found Mark’s workshops enjoyable as well as informative.
 

36 Responses to “Making flax paper”

  1. BuzzyGurl Says:

    Hi there

    This is the first time I’ve visited your site and its absolutely great filled with great information about the art/skill and harakeke. I just wanted to ask you a question about rourou. If I was to make some from freshly cut harakeke and then use them for food (i.e to serve hangi in) will the taste of the harakeke transfer to the food? And could you recommend a good book or website that can show me how to weave nga rourou? Or could you if it isn’t too much trouble (hopefully an easy 5min job because I’ll have to make about a hundred….lol)

    Cheers
    BuzzyGurl

  2. Ali Says:

    Hi Buzzygurl

    Instructions for weaving a rourou can be found online at
    http://teaohou.natlib.govt.nz/journals/teaohou/issue/Mao59TeA/c13.html. Click on the little cameras and the page photos for larger illustrations. The book Fun with Flax also has instructions for weaving a rourou.

    I have wondered about using flax as food baskets myself even though traditionally they are made specifically to serve food in. I don’t know whether any of the moisture from the fresh harakeke, which is a laxative, would transfer to the food, especially hot food, but I doubt that the flax taints the flavour of the food. There may be less risk of the laxative effect with dried flax. One reader has mentioned that she adds a square of tinfoil inside the rourou before using it to serve food, which seems like a good idea as it would help to keep the food hot as well.

    I’d welcome any comments from others about using flax for food containers, as I’ve been asked this question a few times.

  3. Evelyn Brunning Says:

    Kia Ora, I am making paper and have just read your article about the Hollander beater, Iwould be very interested in finding out more about this machine and how much it would cost to buy one. could you please let me know if this is possible,

    Thanks
    Evelyn Brunning

  4. Ali Says:

    Kia ora Evelyn
    Mark Lander makes the Hollanders and they are available through his web site.

  5. Vi Says:

    Hi Ali

    I’m researching Kete whakairo and I don’t seem to be having much luck finding information on the history. Are you able to direct me to some web sites or books that would give me some info please.

    Many thanks
    Vi

  6. Ali Says:

    Hello Vi

    Te Papa museum has a number of kete whakairo in its collection and it has experts on the staff so I imagine they should be able to assist you with your research. Also you may find Mick Pendergrast’s book Raranga Whakairo useful. It’s available in most libraries.

  7. Pukerewa Rameka Says:

    Hi Ali;
    I am writing to you to find out if you have written another book I know before the earthquake you were thinking about a book of baskets and I’m still waiting to see if you have I would love to have that one.
    Thank You Ali
    P.S I think you are amazing I have your flowers book I treasure them both.

  8. Ali Says:

    Hi Pukerewa
    Thanks for your kind comments about my book. I’m glad you enjoy it. Unfortunately the earthquakes have put me well behind with my plans for writing the basket book, but now I have settled into my new house, I’ve started work on it again. In the meantime, I have produced a booklet on how to weave a large container, or waikawa which you may be interested in. It’s $13 including postage and packaging. You can see examples of the container in the second photo down on my Workshops page.

  9. Pukerewa Rameka Says:

    Hi Ali
    Thanks for your quick response yes I am definitely interested in any books you have can’t wait for your new book and I will definiely buy the other book thank you Ali

  10. Ali Says:

    Hi Pukerewa
    To buy the container book you just need to put the $13 into my Westpac bank account 03–0823–0516382–000 and email me your current postal address. I’ll send the booklet as soon as I receive the payment.

  11. Pukerewa Rameka Says:

    ok Ali I will send payment as soon as I can
    Thank you

  12. Pukerewa Rameka Says:

    Good morning Ali;
    I hope you received your payment we sent it thru yesterday afternoon we didn’t know how much for postal sorry I hope it will be aenough
    Pukerewa Rameka

  13. Ali Says:

    hello Pukerewa
    Thanks for the payment which I received today. Can you please email me your current postal address so I can post the book to you.

  14. Pukerewa Rameka Says:

    Hi Ali
    Thanks here is my postal address P.O. Box 983 Kerikeri Northland under Pukerewa Rameka thank you
    looking forward to it how long will it take

  15. Ali Says:

    Hi Pukerewa
    The booklet will be in the post tomorrow so you should get it in two or three days.

  16. Pukerewa Rameka Says:

    Thank you Ali looking forward to reading it don’t to forget when you have finished your other book I will buy that too

  17. Lovey Marshall Says:

    Hi Ali in your reviews you have a book called Te Kono Naku Raranga Harakeke @ $25.00 is it still possible to purchase from you. I also am interested in your instructions for making a waikawa will certainly be interested in your next book. I have your book on making flowers and would like to thank you for sharing your mahi look forward to hearing from you.

  18. Ali Says:

    Hi Lovey

    Yes I think copies of that book are still available. I’ll send your details onto the supplier who will contact you.

    The booklet with instructions for making the waikawa is $13 which includes postage and packaging. You can pay by direct credit into my Westpac bank account 03–0823–0516382–000 and send me an email to advise me.

  19. Charmaine Says:

    Kia Ora Ali,

    Please can you email me some contact details for Mark Lander, I would appreciate that so much.

    Mauri Ora

    Charmaine

  20. kiwimum Says:

    Got your book the other day ,love it ,
    I see Iam going to be very busy trying all the different kinds of flowers,have been making two kinds for a few years now,time to move on ,which I will be able to do now thanks to your book .
    Cheers
    Kiwimum

  21. shirley Says:

    hey ali
    I tried dylon poweder dyes just didnt workfor me :( and I like teri dyes but they dont have pink an violet …….can u suggest other ways or dye firms pls ty hunni love ur site……the best around actually on weaving

  22. Ali Says:

    Hi Shirley

    I find the crimson from Teri dyes will be a sort of pink if you use less dye. You can also mix dyes to make different colours so, for example, red and blue mixed together make violet. You’d need to experiment a bit. Otherwise Rit dyes have a range of colours including light pink, fuschia and mauve which may be what you are looking for.

  23. Diane Says:

    Thank you for all your wonderful instructions. I work with palm. Do you thing it is stiff enough for the fantail.

  24. Ali Says:

    Hi Diane

    Yes I do think palm would be stiff enough for the fantail. I’m not so sure about netting palm though as I don’t think it has fibre inside it. Would that be right? If this is the case, using ordinary plam would be fine I think.

  25. Pukerewa Rameka Says:

    Hi Ali
    This is Pukerewa I was just wondering have you finish that book for baskets yet
    Thank you very interested in it

  26. Karmen Says:

    Tena koe Ali,
    Could you please help me out, does Mark Lander still make the critter beater and how can I get a hold of him as the web site must be down and I would like to purchase on or perhaps you might know of a secondhand for sale somewhere, your help would be much appreciated.

    Naku noa
    Karmen Thomson

  27. Ali Says:

    Hi Karmen

    I’m not sure if Mark still makes the critter beater but there is another contact for him here. Good luck with your search!

  28. Teresa Martin Says:

    Hi Ali. Ive just looked on here to learn abit about making paper, and gosh I nearly clicked off until i thought I would scroll down and came across all these comments. Do you have a face book page?. I would like to see some of your mahi.Awesome blog too and I’m thinking of purchasing your book on making waikawa. Na Mihi
    Teresa.

  29. Lovey Marshall Says:

    Hi Ali
    its been a while since I last contacted you hope you have been well.
    I would like to purchase your book on making a waikawa. Also if possible could you tell me where I can purchase

    Te Kono Naku Raranga Harakeke.

    Hope to here from you soon.

  30. Ali Says:

    Hello Lovey

    Yes I am well thank you. The waikawa book is $15 which includes postage and packaging. You can pay by direct credit into my bank account which is Westpac 03-0823-0516382-000 and send me your current postal address. I will send the book promptly once payment is received.

    Te Kono Naku Raranga Harakeke is available from another source. I’ll email them with your contact details and they will get in touch with you.

  31. suz Says:

    Hi Ali,
    Thank you for such a wonderful blog. I was grateful for your blog on the harakeke paper making workshop which you did with Mark Lander. You mentioned May Davis book with easy steps for making the harakeke paper. I can’t find this or the publishers. Have you any tips on where I might find a copy? I am wanting to teach primary school kids this skill, and you mentioned her technique being the easiest. Will follow your very helpful instructions if search proves fruitless.
    Many thanks, Suz

  32. Ali Says:

    Hello Suz
    The book is an old book I’ve had for a number of years and it was published by the Native Forest Action Council. I imagine the local library will have a copy in its New Zealand section. If you can’t find it, email me your address and I’ll send you a photocopy, for your own use.

  33. K Says:

    Hi!

    I have started making some harakeke paper with a group of year 6 students. We have been following instructions from a school journal but I have been boiling the harakeke for HOURS now and it’s still not breaking down. Do you have a suggestion of what we could do to save it? The school journal instructions didn’t say to beat it or anything first…

    Cheers,
    K

  34. Ali Says:

    Hello K
    I’m not sure how I can help you. Did you cut the flax very small and are you using caustic soda in the boiling water?

  35. Dave Talbott Says:

    Hi. Seems the links you have for Mark Lander do not work at all. I would like to contact this artist and see about the courses he offers and the Hollander thingee.
    Cheers
    Dave

  36. Ali Says:

    Hello Dave, Mark now lives in Oxford. His details are here:
    http://www.artists.co.nz/mlinimi.html

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