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Volume 1, 1868
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Art. XVII.—On the Utilization of the Phormium tenax.

[Read before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, 1864.]*

In considering the natural resources of this colony, there is nothing more calculated to arrest attention, than the abundance and general distribution of the plant popularly known as the New Zealand Flax; and we find, in effect, from a perusal of the various works which have been published on New Zealand, that this plant has always been looked upon with very great interest, both in the colony and in Europe. The interest thus created is due to the presence, in the leaves of the plant, of a large quantity of woody tissue, analagous to that produced from the hemp, and many attempts have accordingly, from time to time been made, to utilize this tissue. I will not venture to go into the causes which have hitherto rendered these attempts abortive, but I may remark that they have had the unfortunate effect of checking further enterprize, by creating an opinion, that the fibre cannot be separated from the leaves, in a state fit for manufacturing purposes, except at a cost far exceeding its value. One cause of failure, however, I will notice, namely, that the capital hitherto employed in our local flax-works, has been too small to test its value in a satisfactory manner, for, it may be laid down as a postulate, that no article of commerce requiring new appliances to render it useful, will find a market in England, unless manufacturers there can be assured of a large and continuous supply.

[Footnote] * The exact date of the reading of this, and the two following papers, before the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, had not been ascertained at the time of their being sent to press.—Ed.

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In using the word “flax,” as applied to the Phormium tenax, it must not be supposed that the plant belongs to the natural order Linaceœ. It belongs to the order Liliacœ of Jussieu, and is botanically described by Dr. J. D. Hooker, in his work on the Flora of New Zealand. In this description, Dr. Hooker particularly notices the existence of the fibre which gives its principal interest to the plant, and the gummy exudation which has been looked upon as a detrimental quality in the leaf. Now, in considering whether this fibre can be turned to useful commercial purposes, we are led to inquire, in the first place, into the question of supply of the raw leaf. Those who have had any opportunity of travelling over these islands, cannot fail to have been struck with the extensive distribution of the Phormium tenax. In almost every locality, whether on the mountain side or in the river bed, in the narrow valley or on the broad plain, we see it growing more or less abundantly. In many places, thousands of acres continuously are covered with it; and it would not be too much to say that within a few miles of Christchurch alone, it occurs in great abundance, growing with more than average luxuriance. There cannot, in fact, be the least doubt of its abundance as a mere natural production, and we may confidently assert that if the fibre can be economically separated in a condition fit for the English market, the natural supply is not likely to be exhausted for many years to come. I may add, moreover, in reference to supply, that from actual experiment I have ascrtained, that average flax land in its natural growth, will yield from ten to twelve tons of raw leaf per acre, without injury to the plants. I have also ascertained, from actual experiment, that the average quantity of fibre obtainable from full grown leaves is little less than one-tenth of the weight of the leaves themselves; or, in other words, that the acre of ordinary flax land, in its natural state, would yield close upon twenty-four hundred-weight of pure fibre per annum, without any outlay whatsoever for cultivation.

This fact alone shows the importance of endeavouring to turn the fibre to account. You have now before you, the fibre separated from leaves of various lengths, as shown in the following table:

Number of specimen. Number of leaves. Weight when cut. lb. oz. Length of leaf. feet. Weight of clean fibre. oz.
1 2 1 6 6 2 and a fraction
2 2 0 12 6 1 ½
3 2 0 10 4 1

You will observe that the weight of fibre in each case bears a nearly average proportion to that of the leaf from which it was extracted, and as the leaves grew on various kinds of soil, we may fairly assume that this proportion is not liable to much variation. Assuming, then, that the supply from natural sources would be sufficient to meet demand for some years to come, it still remains to be considered whether the fibre can be economically separated from the leaf, and whether, when separated, it can be turned to profitable account.

The first point is one which has long excited attention, and the General Government of the colony, some time ago, offered a considerable reward (£2000, I believe), for the production of one hundred tons of fibre, in a

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state to be merchantable in Europe. I am not aware that the reward has ever been claimed, and it is not my place here to inquire, whether the conditions attached to it were calculated to produce the results aimed at. I cannot help thinking, however, that these results could have been equally well attained, had the quantity required been limited to ten or twenty tons, instead of one hundred tons; provided it were at the same time shown that an unlimited supply of the article produced could afterwards have been procured.

Returning to the question, whether the fibre can be economically extracted from the leaf, I think I shall be able to show that this can be done, by a process similar in effect to that by which the fibre before you has been obtained.

You are doubtless aware, that beneath the epidermis or outer covering of the leaf, we find a layer of cellular tissue, technically termed the parenchyma, by which the fibrous tissue is surrounded. You are also probably aware, that the fibrous tissue may be separated from the cellular tissue by maceration, and, indeed, it is by this means that the fibre of the European flax is usually separated from the bark of the plant which produces it. Of course it is important that the fibre should be separated without injuring its strength. Now, the method by which the fibre before you was obtained, was as follows:

The leaves were boiled for two hours with a small quantity of washing soda. After becoming cold, they were bruised so as to break up the parenchymatous tissue, and render it easily separable from the fibrous tissue. When well bruised, the leaves were agitated in running water, until, as you will observe, the whole of the epidermis and the greater part of the parenchyma were removed, leaving the fibre as you now see it.

In order to carry out the same process on a large scale, we should require to use machinery.

In the first place, the leaves should either be boiled or subjected to the action of steam in a close vessel. After boiling, they should be loosely twisted or plaited into an endless rope, some ten or twelve yards in length, and from three to four inches in diameter. Two coils of this rope should then be passed between grooved horizontal rollers, eighteen inches long and about fourteen inches in diameter, one above the other, the lower one moved by machinery, and the upper one pressed on to the lower one by a sufficient weight to secure its contemporaneous but slower revolution, and also to secure the effectual crushing of the parenchymatous tissue. About ten feet below the rollers, should be placed a trough, in which the loose part of the rope should lie, previous to its passing through the rollers, and through which a stream of clear water should run. Every part of the crushed ropes would thus lie in the trough for some time after passing through the rollers, and the running water would gradually remove nearly every particle of the epidermis and parenchyma, leaving nothing but the fibre in the condition in which you now see it. When this process has been completed, the ropes should be hung up to dry, and when dry, be broken into lengths or packed whole in bales, as the case might be.

This process, as you will observe, is a very simple one, but still two questions arise.

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It is economical?


Is the fibre injured by it?

The first question involves a matter of mere calculation.

The machinery is of a very inexpensive character, and, if worked by water-power, the cost of working is reduced to the minimum.

In order to prepare the ropes for passing through the rollers, we should have to provide:


For cutting the flax and tying it into bundles of, say, 112Ibs. each.


For collecting these bundles together for carting.


For the carting to the mill.


For boiling the leaf.


For plaiting or twisting it when boiled, and for watching the further operations.

I am of opinion, taking the present value of labour and fuel into account, that the fibre can be produced at the mill at a gross cost of from £9 to £10 per ton, in condition equal to that now before you.

I will now proceed to make a few remarks upon the question whether the fibre produced by the above process can be turned to profitable account. In this question are involved both local and foreign demand. As regards local demand, I know that some hundreds of tons of phormium flax, in the condition of the imported sample marked A, now before you, are annually used in this colony for stuffing mattrasses, and other upholstering purposes. I know also that flax, in similar condition to that which I have prepared for your inspection, has been long and largely used in neighbouring provinces in the manufacture of rope and lines of various kinds, and that it commands a ready sale for those purposes.

From enquiries that I have made amongst upholsterers in Christchurch, I find that the flax at present consumed by them in the manufacture of mattrasses, etc., costs, them on an average £35 per ton, and that they reckon not less than five per cent as waste. From former inquiries in other parts of the colony, I am led to believe, that fibre in the condition of that before you, would be readily purchased at from £26 to £28 per ton for the same purposes, and for manufacture into rope and lines, and I believe that a still larger quantity would be used for these several purposes, if the raw material could be regularly supplied at £25 per ton.

I also believe, that if a large and continuous supply, of a quality similar to that now shown to you, were guaranteed to English manufacturers, it would command from £25 to £28 per ton in England, for ropemaking purposes alone; for although the rope manufactured from it might not possess the same excellent qualities, in all things, as that made from the fibre of the European hemp, there can be no doubt of the applicability of the rope to various useful purposes, for which its comparative cheapness would greatly recommend it.

I find the following notice, in reference to the applicability of this flax to textile manufactures, in Volume v., of the Transactions of the Royal Society of Victoria, in a letter addressed by Dr. Mueller to the Governor of Victoria, in October, 1860.

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“Sir,—I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of your letter dated 15th October, accompanied by a copy of a dispatch from the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, desiring information on such plants yielding textile fibre as are indigenous to the colony of Victoria, and are likely to supply a want of raw material for British manufactures.

“Whilst, in compliance with His Excellency the Governor's request, I beg to submit such information as I possess on the indigenous vegetable fibres, I regret that I cannot point to any native plant extensively available for the desired purpose, or holding out the prospect of successful introduction into British manufactures.

“But it appears to me that the two varieties of New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), are deserving of especial attention, as likely to supply the wanting material to British weavers, the strength of the Phormium fibre being almost equal to that of silk, and little doubt being entertained that, finally, the genius of invention will overcome the hitherto experienced difficulty of separating, by an easy method, without sacrifice of the material's strength, the fibre from the leaves.

“I beg further to draw attention to the extreme facility with which this plant might be reared on places not available for any other cultivation (such as margins of swamps, periodically inundated margins of lakes, etc.); further, to its great vigour of growth, to the probability of its proving quite hardy in the southern parts of England and Ireland, and to the certainty of its cultivation being attended with full success in South Europe, and therefore in proximity to the British market, and under the advantage of cheap labour.”

Such an opinion is of extreme value, and shows that we have hitherto underrated the importance of this source of wealth.

The real difficulty in regard to the application of the Phormium flax to manufacturing purposes generally, has hitherto been the limit in supply, but I have reason to believe, that if a constant and large supply could be ensured, it would, as I have before stated, be worth at least from £25 to £28 per ton in London.

It will thus be seen, that both for local use and for exportation, this article affords an opportunity for the profitable employment of capital; but I am satisfied that profit can only be derived where its production is undertaken on a large scale.

Upon the question whether the strength of the fibre is injured by the process of separation, mentioned in this paper, I have no means of stating anything conclusive. I am of opinion that it is not in any degree injured, and I found that opinion upon the following passage from a recent work, detailing the progress of useful inventions.

“Recent schemes for preparing flax have excited great attention. Those of Chevalier Claussen are the most important. The first attempt was to prepare long flax fibre for ordinary linen manufacture. Four hundred-weight of flax in the straw was boiled in a stone vat, in water containing caustic alkali, the boiling lasted four hours, which was said to ‘ret’ or separate the fibres as effectually as an ordinary steeping of a week's duration. It is asserted also that the fibre is developed in uniform strength, that it is less discoloured than by the old process, and that much more of the glutinous or gummy matter is removed. The flax was removed from the alkaline liquid, and steeped for two hours in water,

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slightly acidulated with sulphuric acid; this effected the cleansing of the flax, and at the same time rendered the straw a more valuable manure than it would otherwise be. The flax was then in a fit state to be scutched and prepared by the ordinary flax apparatus.”

It would be interesting and satisfactory, however, if some person, qualified to do so, would undertake the experiments necessary to determine this point.