The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 1 (April 2, 1934.)
Bright Outlook for Flax — New Textile for Wool-Packs and Bags
The modern factory of New Zealand Woolpack and Textiles Ltd., at Foxton, which the Rt. Hon. J. G. Coates opened on 9th March, marks the beginning of a new era for “New Zealand Flax” (phormium tenax), by turning it to a new use, for which there is a wide scope in this Dominion and in Australia. Experiments have proved the truth of the new industry's slogan: “Anything that jute can do, phormium can do better.” The secret of this success lies in a new patent process which economically converts hard phormium fibre into a soft textile very suitable for spinning and weaving.
In the present difficult period of New Zealand's industrial evolution, far-seeing men have stressed the importance of finding new uses for some of the country's raw materials, and new markets as well. The purpose, of course, is to broaden the base for the people's livelihood. In his speech at the opening of the woolpack factory, Mr. Coates remarked that one of New Zealand's economic problems was that it was possibly “one of the most vulnerable countries concerned in certain classes of commodities.” That was one reason, he declared, why New Zealanders should have a particular interest in this new industry, which would help in strengthening the country's economic life. The Minister commended the example set by Mr. J. Linklater, M.P., in ordering the first 100 woolpacks from the new factory. The farmers, he said, should all come along and help the industry to establish itself, for it would need a sympathetic start-off.
Quality and Cheapness.
Tests have emphatically proved that the flax-fibre woolpack is appreciably stronger than the jute article. Indeed, the greater textile strength of phormium allows the new pack to take 15 per cent, more wool than can be crammed into a jute pack of the same size. Other advantages of the New Zealand fabric are in its comparative freedom from loose fibres, and in the fact that such fibres of phormium will take dye readily whereas jute fibre resists dye. Here is the situation in one sentence, as spoken by the company's chairman of directors, Sir Alexander Roberts: “The new woolpacks will prove stronger, lighter, cleaner and cheaper than jute packs.”
Plans for Three Factories.
The nominal capital of the company is £300,000, which would provide for three fully-equipped factories — one in Auckland province and one in Southland in addition to the Foxton establishment.
Up to the present the company has expended about £40,000 in land, buildings and plant at Foxton, but this sum does not represent the full development which has been planned for this locality. Even at this initial stage the mills will give direct employment to about eighty persons, but it is expected that the total will exceed 300 when this Foxton factory is developed to its full capacity.
The Big Bill for Jute.
New Zealand has spent many millions of pounds in the purchase of jute woolpacks, bags and sacks. During the past five years the expenditure has amounted to £530,000 for wool-packs and £1,580,000 for bags and sacks. The new industry will have an important national function in diverting such money to the use of New Zealand material and local labour, but it can confidently look further afield in gaining benefits for the Dominion.
£4 Millions Waiting in Australia.
Sir Alexander Roberts mentioned that the annual value of Australia's importations of jute woolpacks, bags and sacks had averaged £4 millions during recent years—a favourable market for the superior New Zealand manufactures. In this vision of big business across the Tasman Sea, Mr. R. Semple, M.P., was encouragingly optimistic. He said that he had had three interviews with Sir Walter Massy Greene (Assistant Federal Treasurer of Australia) and his private secretary (Mr. Carter), who knew Australian industries from A to Z. After they had been shown the New Zealand wool-packs, they both said they were satisfied that if New Zealand could put these packs on the Australian market at a reasonable price—even if it was a little higher than the price of jute— it would have a monopoly of the supply of wool-packs to the Commonwealth. Within two years New Zealand could capture the Australian market.
A Word of Destiny.
The plant known as “New Zealand flax” is really a gigantic member of the lily family.
Why did a scientist give the name phormium tenax to New Zealand's big strong-fibred lily? The word phormium is based on the Greek phormos, which means a basket, and the meaning of the Latin adjective tenax is seen in its derivative, tenacious. So phormium tenax may be translated as “material for strong baskets.” It is a compliment of old-time expert observers to the handicraft of Maori women.
It is destiny then—after the passing of more than a century and a half— that one old-time use of the fibre, the use which gave the plant its botanical name, is to be justified by a modern manufacture of “strong baskets,” known as wool-packs, from that material by a process which would seem miraculous to the Maori.
Serfdom to Salvation.
The present development of phormium fibre as a textile means good cheer for many homes whose bread-winners have been on “relief.” The new industry has opened a way to salvation from stagnation. More than a century ago the making of soft fibre from big sword-bladed leaves practically inflicted sentences of slavery on many Maoris. They were forced by their chiefs to toil long arduous hours in the production of fibre which was bartered for cannon muskets and gun-powder. In that delightful book, “Old New Zealand,” Judge Maning commented on the “hardship, overwork, exposure and semi-starvation” suffered by the flax-gangs. “When we reflect,” he wrote, “that a ton of cleaned flax was the price paid for two muskets, and at an earlier date for one musket, one can see at once the dreadful exertion necessary to obtain it. But supposing a man to get a musket for half a ton of flax, another half a ton would be required for ammunition; and, in consequence, as every man in a native hapu of, say, a hundred men was absolutely forced on pain of death to procure a musket at any cost, and at the earliest possible moment (for, if they did not procure them, extermination was their doom by the hands of those of their countrymen who had), the effect was that this small hapu or clan had to manufacture, spurred by the penalty of death, in the shortest possible time, one hundred tons of flax scraped by hand with a shell, bit by bit, morsel by morsel, half-quarter of an ounce at a time.”
The finely-wrought soft fibre was sold overseas at from £70 to £100 a ton (which would represent about £200 to £300 in New Zealand currency of to-day).