The results of research I am conducting into the history of linen flax in New Zealand, and information on growing and processing methods that are known to work in my conditions. This will be added to and edited to make more coherent as I find more information.
Interestingly, New Zealand has an endemic species of linen flax – Linum monogynum, known as ‘rauhuia’ in te reo Māori. One rare variation grows on limestone cliffs and rock outcrops on the Chatham Islands, and has never managed to be successfully grown in New Zealand due to linum rust (Melampsora lini) which also affect growth in the islands as well. This Stuff article describes the linen flax varieties in New Zealand: Linum perenne (‘perennial flax’) and Linum trigynum don’t grow taller than 50cm, so not ideal for fibre. Linum bienne is a weed that apparently grows to about 80cm tall – I’ll have to keep an eye out for that! The article also mentions Linum monogynum. The fifth species is the one I am particularly interested in: Linum usitatissimum. Very interesting!
New Zealand had a flax industry in several parts of the country, including my home town. Mostly, it was processing our native ‘harakeke’ (Phormium tenax), but during WWII, they also processed linen flax. A friend recently shared this lovely photo of flax stooks drying, though it is incorrectly identified as being in Methven (South Canterbury, NZ). The photo is also here, labelled as being in Geraldine (South Canterbury, NZ), which is confirmed by the same friend who sent it to me (who is familiar with the area). This photo shows a woman stacking flax in Geraldine in 1943. The Geraldine Museum has a section about the linen industry there, briefly mentioned in this article about the museum. This article talks about the history of linen flax in Methven.
My own hometown was part of the linen flax industry (a great photo or two in this article). In the summer of 1939-1940, 100 acres of linen flax was grown in Marlborough and processed at a mill owned by a family my father would work for, nearly 40 years later. There were also mills in other parts of the province. This industry declined after the war. There are two books on this topic that I need to chase at the National Library: ‘Marlborough: a provincial history’ (ed. A.D. McIntosh) and ‘Tua Marina settlement 1859-1959: a centennial review’ (F.W. Smith).
I also read a report written in 1939 by J.W. Hadfield as part of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Plant Research Bureau. He travelled to Europe and wrote a report about how linen flax is grown and processed, and how that might be applied to such an industry in NZ. It has many interesting nuggets that are relevant to growing flax in NZ! He states that moisture is important for uniform growth – dry weather reduces growth and even speeds up maturity – and plants don’t grow a whole lot once they’ve flowered. Therefore, you need soil with high moisture reserves, but not over-rich, which can make the plants more prone to lodging (information echoed in the study done at the Ribe Viking Institute, mentioned in the ‘Resources’ entry). Another point is that high Nitrogen content makes the flax straw coarser with lower fibre content and quality. Therefore, he states that the ‘clay loam downs’ in North Canterbury are suitable for flax, likewise parts of Otago and Southland. He also recommends cool summers, as lower temperatures mean that flax rust (mentioned below) is less likely to occur – sowing in Autumn is one way of working around that, though that brings its own issues. Mr. Hadfield reports the standard ‘time to harvest’ as 100 days, but acknowledges that this can vary – experimental crops have varied from 90-130 days. He also says that when the stem is 2/3 yellow, it is ready for harvest, both for seed and fibre (though the fibre would be finer if harvested sooner). This isn’t always reliable though, as if there is a lot of moisture the stem may stay green. A cut and squeezed seed boll will ooze sap if it’s not mature yet, though. I should try this next year!
In 1946 Mr Hadfield wrote another report, this time for the Linen Flax Corporation of New Zealand. He describes the beginning of the industry in New Zealand: with European politics in the 1930s, a decrease in Russian exports, and a desire to increase the range of industries here, it was seen as a good idea to investigate the possibility of a flax linen industry in New Zealand. Then World War II happened, and this became more important, and many member countries of the Commonwealth cultivated linen flax. In New Zealand, trials began in Lincoln in 1936. Things went well, and in 1939, ‘semi-commercial production’ began, with a factory set up in Rangiora. 200 acres of flax were grown in the area between Rangiora and Waikuku, and a further 100 acres were grown in Blenheim! Rangiora had a very dry year, and the Blenheim crop, while excellent, was insufficient to build a factory – so the crop was sold to a Mr L.C. Chaytor, a long-time advocate for a linen flax industry in Blenheim, and who built his own retting tanks and processing machinery. The British Ministry of Supply then requested 15,000 acres of flax for the 1940-41 season, and as much as could be produced from then on. Initially, the flax was scutched without being retted first, but this was discontinued in favour of dew-retting. By the summer of 1940/41, the predominant processing method became tank retting, which was faster (2.5-3 days) and less prone to problems with wind. Each tank was able to process 4 tons of flax per tank, and were spread throughout the South Island from Canterbury southwards, with a few more in Blenheim and Seddon. By 1941/42, there were 17 factories with a total of 76 retting tanks! The New Zealand industry was primarily the growth of the linen flax and processing up to the stage of scutching. The scutched flax was then sent overseas for spinning and weaving.
Whether due to the seed variety or the failings of the processing machinery, the flax produced in NZ was characterised by spinners in the UK as coarse and harsh, which microscopic analysis found to be due to “a lack of sub-division of fibre strands due to epidermal and cortical cells remaining attached to fibre bundles”, though it also lost little fibre during hackling, and was uniform and reliable. It was often used to make flax canvas or hosepipes. There was some loss of heart in the industry after these criticisms, but there was also a determination to improve the quality of fibre produced after the war was over. However, by the end of the war there were only 7 factories maintaining production, many of which had closed down by 1947. This seems to be due to a combination of insufficient crop to process, problems with producing a sufficiently high quality of fibre (whether because the seed varieties used produced coarse fibres or were prone to disease/very sensitive to growing conditions), and a shrinking market for byproducts as other textile sources became available once more. The report also recognises that the conditions that were best for growing linen flax for the fibre were not the same as when the product was the seed/oil – for good quality fibre, cooler conditions, even rainfall, and ‘retentive sub-soil’ are required.
It seems that the linen flax industry in New Zealand simply dwindled, though it may have lasted longer than many realised. Our National Library has a copy of a pamphlet by the Linen Flax Corporation of New Zealand written in March 1970. By that point, the flax mill in Geraldine was the only one left out of the seventeen mills that were built in New Zealand during WWII. Most linen flax was was grown on farms in South Canterbury. This pamphlet says that the fibre and flax plants are the same, the sole difference being that flax plants grown for fibre are more densely plants to prevent branching and encourage a long straight stem of 30-35 inches in height (76-89cm). Similar to my own crops, flax is sown in September and October, and harvested in January and February. The processing of the flax is mechanised, of course, and the fibres produced may be blended with wool, while the lower quality fibres are turned into twine. The pamphlet ends with optimism for the future of the linen industry in the world.
I could also try a cover crop/polyculture by sowing a ground cover crop such as red clover, following a practise Mr. Hadfield encountered in Belgium. As for what variety of seed – he discusses fibre varieties, distinguished by flower colour (Blue is Best!), and also mentions varieties developed by a couple of research departments in Norfolk (‘Liral’) and Northern Ireland (‘Stormont’), and one predominant in Egypt (‘Ghiza Purple’). So far, no idea if these are known varieties any more. He recommends using phosphates, in particular ‘sulphate of potash’ as increasing fibre content, and warns about the main diseases likely to threaten linen flax crops: the aforementioned ‘Flax rust’, the seed-borne stem break/browning (Polispora lini), Pasmo (Sphaerella linicola), and ‘Wilt’ (Fusarium lini), which persists in soil.
The Geraldine Historical Museum published a short book in 2019 on the history of the Geraldine Linen Flax Mill, and I purchased a copy. It describes much of what I had already learned from above sources about the beginnings of the flax industry in New Zealand, but also describes the end of the mill as reports from the committee of flax growers. As per the 1946 report by JW Hadfield, only six mills were still in operation by 1946, and by 1955, the Geraldine mill was the only one left. By 1977, the Mill was running at a loss, and the Government decided to close the Linen Flax Corporation and sell the assets to private enterprise – it was bought by Linen Textiles Ltd in December 1977. Two years later, Waihi Wools Ltd (an exporter of scoured wool) bought out that company, but competition with subsidised linen from overseas and rising costs meant that in November 1981, the land and buildings of the mill were sold, and the equipment auctioned off.