The wax on flax

14 April 2008

roseHave you ever noticed that dyed flax often loses some of the natural sheen that can be seen on freshly harvested flax, leaving the colour flat and dull? It seems that the sheen comes from a layer of wax on the surface of the flax leaf. Apparently, all plant leaves have at least some wax on the surface of their leaves — mainly to waterproof them but also to provide a degree of protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, and from disease and grazing by insects.

I recently did a series of experiments with 15 different flax varieties, to see if I could identify the factors responsible for this loss of sheen in more detail, and I’ve just posted the results in a new Minimising the loss of sheen on dyed flax section on my Dyeing page. Personally, I’ve never liked the loss of sheen on dyed flax. I don’t mind the gradual loss of colour and sheen that occurs as natural flax dries, but coloured flax without a sheen often seems to make the flax look a bit too artificial for my taste, especially if the flax is dyed in an intense colour, which just seems to accentuate the relative absence of sheen. In fact, up until a couple of years ago, I hardly ever wove with dyed flax, and found myself in agreement with Dorothy Ramae Mackinnon, in the book Every Kete has a Story, when she wrote:

I’ve spoken of [Auntie Stut] at times to others and they’ve said, “Oh yes she was a very plain weaver”. We now focus so much on kete whakairo (ketes decorated with coloured geometric patterns), we think that shows us as prestigious weavers! Lately, I’ve not touched dyed work. I’ve done that one. Got that out of my system! I’ve gone back to the plant itself and keep looking at its subtleties. I feel that some of that subtlety has been lost because of the amazing intensity of our dyes.

However, I’ve begun to change my mind over the last couple of years, and now feel that dyed flax — even flax dyed in intense colours — has its place. Part of the reason for my change of mind has been working on a booklet of instructions for woven flax flowers in different designs. Flax flowers don’t need the strength that most flaxworks need, so they can be woven from Phormium cookianum, or wharariki, which comes in a lot of different varieties with such bright, beautiful, natural colours, such as the leaf and flower illustrated at the beginning of this blog post. Most of the flower instructions in the booklet have been woven from coloured, variegated Phormium cookianum.

snake leaf flax arrangementFor the long list of people who have asked to be notified as soon as the booklet comes out, and have been waiting patiently, in many cases for several months, I must apologise once again. There are several reasons for the delay. Firstly, I’ve been including more and more weaving designs for flowers, and improving the photography and layout as I’ve gone along. Secondly, I recently moved from my well-established lifestyle block in the country to the city, and the move has taken up quite some time. Thirdly, having finished working on the instructions, it seemed silly to release the booklet without showing at least some examples of what can be done with the flax flowers once they’ve been woven.

Unfortunately the beautiful colours of variegated Phormium cookianum fade all too quickly, and flax flowers really suit bright colours, so I’ve been getting into dyeing more than ever before. Being in something of a hurry to finish the booklet, and not knowing anywhere near as much as I wanted to know about retaining the sheen on dyed flax, some of my first efforts were far too dull. Hence my current experiments. At some point, I’ll do more experiments with dyeing, but I’ve done enough to be able to get back to the booklet without the dyeing being quite such a hit-and-miss affair.

39 Responses to “The wax on flax”

  1. Michele Says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge with us. I’m happy to wait for the booklet!

  2. Dorothy Ramae MacKinnon Says:

    Kia ora from the North Ali,
    I find your site informative and inspiring but most of all refreshing…. refreshing my love of weaving
    Lucky students to have you pass on your gift
    Happy Matariki

    ps I am in agreement with you … colour has its place,I’m hoping that the Northern weavers have a forum to discuss dye issues … saftey, price, techniques etc… when that does happen I will the share info

  3. Ali Says:

    Kia ora Dorothy.
    It’s so nice to hear from you. I really enjoyed Every Kete has a Story. I hope the forum takes place, and will be very interested to hear about it.

  4. Tarettia Says:

    I really enjoy your website, and need to keep checking back in to see what is new. I am also interested in your flower booklet, could you add me to the database


  5. Sarah Says:

    Wow what a fantastic blog I am so pleased to have found this (: I am weaving my bouquet for my wedding in November and you have the answers to so many of my questions! I would also love to buy your booklet as I am keen to learn more varieties of putiputi (:

  6. Ali Says:

    Hi Tarettia and Sarah

    I’ve added your names to my database.

    I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading the blog Sarah. What kind of flowers are you weaving for your bouquet? Do send me a photo when it’s made - I’d love to see it.

  7. Lynn Hayes Says:

    Hi Ali, I love your blog page and web page. I have to keep coming back to see what others say. Thanks Lynn

  8. Ima Reid Says:

    Love your pages Ali-admire your skills and talent and passion for korari. Please add me to your list for the booklet too.

  9. Ali Says:

    Hi Ima

    Yes I’ll add your name to the database - thanks for your comments and interest.

  10. Sarah Says:

    Thanks Ali!
    I’m not sure what you call the flowers I am making, it is one blade split into 8-10 strands and woven around and around until the end. Hope that makes sense (: I will def send you a picture of the finished product.
    Just a question about dying - can I dye the flowers I have already woven or does it have to be done beforehand? Thanks (:

  11. Ali Says:

    Hi Sarah

    The flowers you are weaving sound like a version of the hibiscus flower that I have instructions for on the Weaving a flax flower page of my web site.

    It is better to dye first and then weave as the dye doesn’t always penetrate underneath the flax strips where they cross over each other. However, if your flowers are still quite green then you may not strike this problem as the flax will still be drying and shrinking.

    If they are quite dry, you could soak or boil them in hot water before you dye them so that the flax is reconstituted and this should help the dye penetrate the flax. Leave them in the hot or boiling water long enough for the flax to feel soft and pliable again.

    Before you do the dyeing, I suggest that you have a think about how much of the stem of the flower you’d like to dye. I’m not that keen on seeing the dye colour suddenly stop halfway down the stem of a flower.

    Dyeing the stem and the flower at the same time is an option but you do need a very large dye pot for this method. Another option is to put the flower head into the dye pot first and then turn the flower around and dye the stem, although you can get an overlap of dye at the point where the dye meets. You can also just dye the flower head so that the stem stays a natural flax colour or you can wrap the stems so they’re not seen at all. Hope I haven’t confused you with the options!

    I suggest you try a couple of the flowers you have woven and see what sort of result you get. The bits that are not dyed may not be big enough to notice or for you to worry about. Happy weaving!

  12. Michal Says:


    I was just visiting your awesome website and was wondering if could pick your brains about bleaching of flax to make it super white.

    I’m entering, well hoping to enter into a fashion competition and would like to use white flax.
    Do I bleach it with janola or some other bleach or do I boil it? and then would it be better for me to make the flowers then bleach or bleach the flax then plait the flowers?

    Thank you so much for your great website it has helped me expand on my knowledge of what my aunts have taught me!!!

  13. Ali Says:

    Hi Michal

    Thanks for your comments about the website - I’m glad you find it useful.

    As I’ve never bleached flax I’m not sure what the results would be from using a bleach like Janola although I would suggest you boil the flax and then leave it to bleach naturally in the sun first. This will take a lot of the green colour out so it’s more likely that the Janola-type bleach will take out the rest of the colour. I’m going to try soaking some boiled and dried flax in bleach myself to see what happens. I’ll let you know. I do wonder whether the bleach will weaken the flax fibres, although if it’s only flowers that you’re making it won’t matter so much. Also I think Dylon may have a colour remover that you could try.

    I would also suggest that you experiment with different flaxes as they do dry to different colours, as you may know, and some are known to dry to quite a white colour. Check out the information about the different flaxes and the colours they dry to on the Landcare web site. You may find one there that suits your purpose.

    I would suggest that you bleach the flax before making the flowers as the shape of some flower styles can be distorted if you boil them afterwards. I always like to experiment first and then I’m sure of the result that I’ll get. Sometimes it’s not what’s expected and it can be better than expected.

    There was a kete in The Eternal Thread exhibition that was very white but unfortunately it’s not in the book “The Art of Maori Weaving” which features this exhibition, so I’m not sure who the weaver was. I’ll see if I can find out.

    It would be great to hear from others who have managed to whiten flax and how they’ve achieved it.

  14. Ali Says:

    Hi again Michal

    I asked Ranui Ngarimu, well-known weaver and co-author of the book “The Art of Maori Weaving”, about whitening harakeke and here is her advice:

    I think that the kete that you are refering to from Eternal Thread was made from kiekie rather than harakeke as there were no really white harakeke kete in that particular exhibition.

    We do have harakeke that dries to be quite a lovely creamy white. This harakeke is usually found on the east cost of the North Island and I know of a particularly beautiful white one from Te Hapua.

    It is the variety of harakeke that determines the dried natural colour. I was really amazed and pleasantly surprised by the variety of colours that came from the 800 kete for the World heritage conference last year. The dried colours ranged from creamy white through to yellows and tans as well as silvery greys and greens. This has prompted me to do a bit more research on the harakeke from the weavers who contributed to that project. Using bleach is not recommended as it weakens the strands.

    Ranui confirms that bleaching will weaken the strands it may not be the best solution for you, but this will depend on the articles you are making.

    Finally here’s a more radical idea that I’ve seen - harakeke flowers that have been spraypainted!

  15. Marley Says:

    I am planning to make flax flower bouquets for my wedding and would be very interested in your booklet…can you add me to your database please!?! Do you have a rough estimate as to when it will be ready???

  16. Carolyn Says:

    I am also hoping to make my own wedding bouquet. I have been quoted a price of over $900 to have 4 bouquets and some button holes, and cannot afford this so thought i should make my own. Do you have any instructions on how to make the flax roses?

  17. Ali Says:

    Hi Marley & Carolyn

    The flower booklet will be ready soon. I’m not keen to put a time on it but if things go according to plan it will be published in the next month or two.

    Carolyn - I’ve found that different-shaped flowers can be called roses by different people. There are instructions for the flower, which I call an English Rose, and which is pictured at the top of this blog post, in the booklet. There are also instructions for another type of flower, which I call a Tropical Rose, in the booklet.

  18. Sarah Says:

    Thanks heaps Ali, I have only just got around to coming back and checking this (: I have woven quite a few flowers now, they are the same as the ones on your page (altho not quite as perfect!) I have tried some dyign too, using dylon dyes and boiling them for 20mins and have had really good results. The flowers did open up a little bit, but I just pegged them and let them dry. I will show you the results… just deciding how to arrange the bouquet and table pieces. Only 6 weeks to go! Thanks so much for your help (:

  19. Ali Says:

    Hi Sarah

    Thanks for letting me know how you are getting on with the flowers. I’m glad they’re turning out well. I’d love to see some photos of the flowers once you have made your bouquet and table pieces. Good luck with the wedding!

  20. Tamara Says:

    Hi Ali,

    Your website is amazing. Can you please add me to your database to recieve your booklet?

  21. Ali Says:

    Hi Tamara
    I’ve added your name to the database.

  22. Eve Bensemann Says:

    Hi There

    Your website is great!! Can you please add me to your database to recieve your booklet?

  23. Liz Says:

    Hi Ali,

    Very informative website. Like Sarah I’m thinking of weaving flowers for my wedding and would love to see your booklet! Can you please add me to your database?

  24. Ali Says:

    Hi Liz

    Yes I will. At 115 pages long it’s turned into a book rather than a booklet and will be released shortly. I’ll advise you by email when it’s available.

  25. Rosen Says:

    Wow, I can’t believe I’ve just stumbled across your web site in search of dying harakeke as I have accepted to make several bouquets for a cuzzies wedding and needed some ideas on dying etc.. Thank you so much for your shared information, it has help me heaps. Thank you to all those who wrote in about their experiences as this told me what not to do and to be honest I was actually gonna tried some of them myself, lol. Kia ora koutou

  26. Colleen Jamieson Says:

    Great blog please include me in your list. Just got into Maori flax weaving and absolutely love it.

  27. wedding flower arrangement Says:

    hi guys

    I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article. I am hoping the same best work from you in the future as well and i have start my own blog now, wedding flower arrangement, thanks for your effort

  28. Diane Says:

    I would like to thank you on your amazing book weaving flowers.I would like to know is it best to make flowers first then dye,if so what is best dye to use,and how long you boil for.I was wondering how you go about the stems. I wish to make some flower arrangements and make my granddaughters wedding boquet.Can you please add me to your data base.I look forward to when you do a book on kete making.

  29. Ali Says:

    Hi Diane

    I generally dye the flax first then make the flowers. If you make the flowers first and then dye them, the dye may not get into all the woven bits and this will show as undyed flax when the flax dries and shrinks a bit. Also the flower may go out of shape a little while it is in the boiling dye and you’ll need to reshape it as it dries.

    As far as the stems are concerned there are several things you can do. You can use a large pot that will fit a long flax blade in if it’s curled around, you can just dye the head of the flower and leave the stem naturally coloured, or you could wrap the stems with florists’ tape. Also the Calla Lily on page 66 of my book has instructions for a coloured woven stem.

    There is information about different dyes on the Dyeing flax page of this web site.

    Good luck with your grand-daughter’s wedding bouquet. Let me know how you get on with the flowers for this and do send me some photos if you get the chance.

  30. ejay Says:

    Wow I love it. just like many others i stumbled onto your site. love it love it. plez may i have a copy also.

  31. Raewyn Says:

    Hi Ali,

    Your ‘the man’, excusae the pun.
    Willing to share your knowledge to us plebs and learners, how great is that, all the while fostering the age o0ld art of weaving.
    I too have been trying different methods of bleaching flax, and not yet been successful. So if anyone has ‘cracked it’ do let us long sufferers know.
    Ali please place me on your book new list

    Fa’afetai lava

  32. Tepaea Davis Says:

    kia ora Ali
    It was so heart warming to read your blogs. I have been out of action with weaving due to work committments. But with a up and comming event for my family I have decided to pick it up again and purchase your recent book of weaving flax flowers which was not my strongest area. I will follow your westpac instalment then email you my address when u receive the payment. Makes it easier this is my bank also. Please add me to your list
    kia kaha tonu koe
    Noho ora mai
    Te paea Davis

  33. Ali Says:

    Kia ora Tepaea

    I’m glad you’ve found the blog interesting. Some of the flowers in the book only take a short time to make so hopefully you’ll find the time for some weaving.

  34. Rich Says:

    Kia Ora Ali,
    Absolutely love the website.
    I am just wondering if you know how to hapene?
    I am wanting to make hapene for my grandmothers 90th birthday for decorations up in the far north. If you can guide me or instruct me, or send me instructions to making hapene.
    Buying hapene is sooooooo expensive.


  35. Ali Says:

    Kia ora Rich

    Hapene is the name of netted flax which is produced on a commercial basis.

    I’ve put some basic details on making netted flax here in a reply to a comment on one of my blog posts.

    Addendum, 29 July 2013
    Since writing this comment, I have a new understanding of the legal situation regarding netting flax, and have updated the netted flax section of this website to reflect the correct information.

  36. Rich Says:

    Tena koe mo tena e Ali.
    I was wondering, do I need to use muka flax or will any flax do the job? and also, can you recommend a way to make netted flax without using a pasta machine?
    Much appreciated.

  37. Ali Says:

    Tena koe Rich

    Any flax will do although I imagine a flax with more fibre would make a better result. I tried netting the flax with a knife, by cutting just through one half of the green fleshy bit, and then I tried netting the flax by scraping it with a fork to scrape off the fleshy bit, but neither method was all that successful. The difference seems to be that when the flax is put through a pasta machine, the rollers push the flax apart where they push down on it, rather than cutting it. If you do end up wanting to purchase a pasta machine, I have seen quite cheap machines on sale at some of the larger stores and currently there is a model selling through what appears to be an importer for $32 on Trademe.

    Addendum, 29 July 2013
    Since writing this comment, I have a new understanding of the legal situation regarding netting flax, and have updated the netted flax section of this website to reflect the correct information.

  38. Michael Algar Says:

    Kia ora Ali love your blog thank you so much for sharing your knowledge, I am very keen on your book and please include me on your list of followers and mail outs.

    I have left my details for you to peruse as im just starting out in my business “Flaxrose gallery” we are out in the country ( in the middle of no where) Kaiwaka is the closest township.

    cant wait to read more

    Nga mihi Michael

  39. Ali Says:

    Kia ora Michael, Thanks for your comments. I have sent you an email regarding linking your products on my website. cheers, Ali