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The Real “Fibre Network” – growing Linen in Northland

A resilient community is one that can fall back to meet its own basic needs in times of difficulty.

Food is obviously fundamental, energy not far behind (as many experienced with Far-North power blackout this week) but not far behind this is the need for clothing.

With that in mind three years ago we began researching alternative fabrics that could be produced locally. We found that most of our imported clothing comes from sources that are either ecologically unsound (monoculture, GE, high water demand, high energy requirement, high chemical input) or socially exploitive (sweat-shops with bad wages, poor working conditions, badly rewarded farmers etc). Even so-called organic or fair trade cotton requires huge volumes of precious water and energy-intensive processes, plus it still requires transporting from distant parts of the world. Like the food system, the fabrics of the world have been industrialised with all the problems associated with massive-scale industrial thinking.

The obvious answer seemed to us to be locally sourced fibre that can be grown and processed small-scale in a way that has a positive environmental impact. We already have wool obviously, and there needs to be much more local processing of this, but we wanted lighter fibres that had the potential to replace cotton and synthetics. We looked at Bamboo based fibres and Rayon (made from wood-pulp) but both, although organic-based, require a large amount of energy and chemically intensive processing.

Our native flax harakeke (Phormium Tenax) is another obvious choice but to process to soft clothing that is wearable like cotton is not easy. It has potential, and we are pursuing this also, but it lends itself more to heavier duty applications at this stage. Our other choices were hemp and linen flax. Industrial hemp is a great fibre but closely related to the Cannabis plant which obviously thrives in Northland – an association that can be problematic from a legal and perception perspective, so for now we decided to explore the option of linen flax (Linum usitatissimum).

What is Linen Flax?

Linen flax is no relation of our NZ flax. The reason the early Europeans named Harakeke as “flax” was that the fine soft fabric made from the “muka” in the harakeke resembled fabric made from European linen flax. The difference in the plant itself is substantial, and often surprises New Zealanders who expect the linen flax plant to be a fan shape when it is actually a completely different structure.

Linen flax is the same plant that Linseed comes from. Linseed is used for its oil – both for human and animal consumption and also extensively in paints and finishes for furniture. The plant has a three-month growing season from sowing seed to harvest – usually over summer. The whole plant is harvested including roots, and seeds may be saved for re-sowing the following season. It may be possible grow two crops in a year – something we will explore in future. There are number of varieties for fibre, and other shorter, bushier varieties for seed/oil production. So two years ago we decided we would try to source some seeds and grow a trial patch. We decided on a variety called Marylin from Wild Fibres in the UK. We purchased 600 grams the first year which cost us GBP35 including shipping.

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Our Journey

We planted 200 grams the first year on an area of about 5m x 1.5m. This enabled us to water easily, pluck out weeds and cover with a shade cloth shelter. We prepared the soil with lots of compost and broke up the ground to a depth of about 40cm. The soil we were working with was naturally poor, slightly acidic, mostly in northerly full sunshine so we added shade cloth to protect the crop from drying out too much and to keep birds away. We watered the crop regularly over the dry Far North summer (this was in Mangonui), and sure enough after 2 1/2 months little blue flowers appeared and the crop began to mature to a full height of 1.2m. At three months the flowers had dropped and seed pods were beginning to brown and fatten. The bottoms of the stems were starting to change colour. A storm had laid the crop over a bit so we decided it was time to harvest!

IMG_9228Harvesting consists of grabbing a bundle and plucking it out of the ground. The plants are hardy so come out well, but we found that care should be taken not to kink the stems at this stage. Our precious crop was now ready for drying and retting. The only inputs up to this point were soil, compost, water and labour. The rest of the process can also be completed just with natural inputs.

IMG_3073After allowing the stems to dry a bit, and removing the seed heads we next entered the “retting” process. This is about breaking down the pectin in the stems so that the fibre can come away from the woody portion, and is accomplished by soaking the stems in a bath of water for a couple of weeks. In some parts of the world retting is done in streams or rivers, and in some places dew-retting is practiced. Our bath made a good small-scale retting pond. As the process continues the smell can be a bit of an issue – not unlike a pigsty. Once the retting is done the next stage is to dry the stems in the sun ready for “breaking” and “scutching”. This removes the woody portion releasing the beautiful fibres for combing for eventual spinning.

IMG_3093At this scale we did this all by hand, without any real tools to speak of. To move to larger scale some tools would obviously be essential! The most time consuming part is the scutching. In our second year we allowed our flax to mature more and spend longer in the retting process. This made the scutching easier as the stems were stronger but the bonds were weaker.

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A friend who is a spinner spun some of the “tow” (the shorter, broken fibre) into a heavy thread – then knitted it. This made a light, warm fabric that would have potential for a jacket say once larger amounts were spun. We have yet to try spinning the longer lengths but these should produce finer tread suitable for weaving.

In our second year we experimented with growing more (we grew 800 grams in 4 beds) and seeing whether it would be okay without so much soil preparation and without the shade-cloth. The results were mixed. Obviously good well-prepared soil helps! A couple of friends grew some in different soils. One was coastal and sown widely apart – it did not thrive and was overcome with weeds. It seems they like to be sown close together. Another grew some in volcanic soil with plenty of water and the crop was spectacular.  They were planted close enough that they beat the weeds so no weeding was required. This year we have been offered a plot of volcanic soil around Whangarei so we are hoping for a great result. Now in our third year we are experimenting for the first time with planting seeds saved from prior year crops, plus some from what was left of the imported seeds.

Potential as a viable fabric?

It can certainly grow in Northland. It requires no input apart from soil, water and labour to grow. Processing is fairly basic – some equipment could probably be made easily enough to speed up processing. People with spinning and weaving skills already exist. The point is we could potentially grow this at enough scale to provide employment and create a local fibre without massive investment in infrastructure or R & D. Technology is available to take to a larger scale. There are production models from France for instance where this is commercially grown within a co-operative business structure. The idea is not just as a high-end craft item, but as a fibre that can potentially be used to provide ordinary local fabric, helping us to be more economically resilient, providing work and reducing the global transportation impact.

Clive McKegg

23 thoughts on “The Real “Fibre Network” – growing Linen in Northland

  1. Di Maxwell

    Love this project. A few months ago we visited a linen factory in Ireland (famous for it’s linen) that had been in existence for hundreds of years, and were treated to a display of linen weaving. There is also someone who has been experimenting with linen and possum fur combinations – that will be interesting.

    Reply
  2. Mairi Gunn

    Thanks for this. I’ve been wondering about flax and harakeke production for years. We’re about to start planting our new land and I’d like to experiment with linen too. Please keep us posted.

    Reply
  3. Reva Mendes

    Kia ora! Wow love the whole concept of working with natural resources to create a variety of products and services that can sustain local people who work towards a common goal! I am a traditional Maori weaver and work a lot with harakeke and other natural fibres and would like to know more about your projects! I also live in Northland, Hokianga region and have always had a vision in bringing back a flax mill!!! Looking forward to hearing back from you! Nga mihi Reva!

    Reply
    1. Clive Post author

      Hi Reva – Good to hear from you. Very exciting stuff happening at present with the natural fibres! Will put you on the email list to keep in touch. Clive

      Reply
  4. Pingback: Linen Flax Update | Localise

  5. Joh Hargood

    Hi great project you have going here. I have a personal interest in self sufficiency and old time crafts. Would you be willing to sell me some seeds so I could have a try at growing this, as I have not been able to find a seller of the seeds in nz. Please feel free to drop me an email to discuss. Thanks Joh.

    Reply
  6. Martin Pepperell

    Hi Clive,

    great article. I have just grown my first batch in Auckland and looking for more info on fibres so good to read this. I plan to be doing more with flax but moving to New Plymouth later this year. Can you put me on the list please?

    Regards,

    Martin.

    Reply
    1. Clive Post author

      Hi Martin,
      Good to hear. We had a bit of a crop failure this year for some reason. It was a bit a of a funny season. We’re going to try experimenting with planting in the late summer.
      I’ll add you to the mailing list.
      Clive

      Reply
  7. Laurren Winmill

    Hi Clive,

    Very exciting and interesting project and informative article. I’m based in New Plymouth and am researching sustainable textile practises.
    I’m currently researching planting a natural dye garden with the hope to experiment with natural dyes….and hopefully in the future collaborate with others. I’m really interested in your project of growing linen, I’m heading up to mangonui at the end of March and was wondering if its possible to meet you and see what you do. Also could you please put me on your mailing list.
    Kind regards
    Laurren

    Reply
    1. Clive Post author

      Hi Laurren, Great to hear what you are up to. We went to a conference at Scion in Rotorua a couple of years ago now all about the future of fibres in NZ – very exciting possibilities! I’ll put you on the mailing list. Our linen project is at a bit of a lull at the moment. Sylvia is hoping to try an Autumn crop (at some land belonging to friends here in Whangarei) as our summer crop didn’t take for some reason. So not much to see at present :(. But we’ll post any progress on here and keep an eye on our facebook page localisenz.

      Reply
  8. Nicola Coulter

    I am interested in growing flax and just wanted to ask if there are any restrictions on importing the seed. Is it ok to just buy from the UK site or do I need to do anything else.

    Thanks

    Reply
    1. Clive Post author

      Hi Nicola,
      No real problems. The full requirements from MPI are here https://www.mpi.govt.nz/document-vault/1151. You need to complete a declaration form: “a declaration signed by the exporter and importer must accompany the consignment declaring that the consignment does not contain GM seeds (refer to Appendix 3: Declaration form )” (see page 63). Mind you we only imported a couple of Kg at a time. Once they were intercepted by customs and inspected and we had to pay a small inspection fee (about $25 from memory). Other times they have just come straight through to our PO Box.
      Clive

      Reply
  9. Dimitri

    Hi Clive, just read the linen flax article and how inspiring it is! I totally believe in the localisation of economies as being the way forward and out of this quagmire of an eco-mad system that we currently have in the world. I see millions of smaller, mostly self-reliant economic pods trading in the things they can not or want not produce themselves. The “olde” village-centered system seems to have been working far better that the global industrial farming model. So yes, linen flax seems a fantastic idea, along with probably hemp as a fast growing crop for construction and other uses.
    Just wanted to say I so commend you guys for having worked on this stuff for all the time you have already invested in exploring real practical approaches to build healthy local economies, in Northland and beyond.
    Greetings, Dimitri Frost
    PS, I’ve trained in farming at a college way back in Austria, where I’m from, graduating 1982. I’m now based on the Tutukaka coast. For a long time I’ve been observing the decline of eco-logical land use into industrial cash crop factories, devoid of social life and eroding the social fabric of local communities, fostering mass migration into the cities of this world. I am convinced that a new era of agri-culture is inevitably gaining momentum now, growers becoming the doctors and stewards of the land again as they had been before they were enslaved by the interest driven monetary system addicted to endless GDP growth. And now humanity is also blessed with amazing libraries of accumulated technological knowledge and capabilities which we’ll be able to put to good use. An exciting future ahead :)

    Reply
  10. Martina Padrutt

    Hi Clive,
    I am really interested in sustainable fashion and fabrics, most particularly linen. I work on a cropping farm in Mid Canterbury and would love to see Linen flax being grown here and integrated as part of a farmers crop rotation and eventually grown on a commercial scale. What are your thoughts on this? is there potential for this to happen in the future?
    Could i also be added to your mailing list.
    Kind regards ,
    Martina

    Reply
    1. Clive Post author

      Hi Martina,
      Great to hear from you. I can definitely see a linen flax crop working in a crop rotation as it only needs to be in the ground for three months. We’re still trying to work out which is the best three months! The weather in Northland has been very unpredictable, but Canterbury could well be more suitable as more stable I imagine and easier to control conditions eve if that means irrigation. This is a great article about someone in Nova Scotia doing it at some scale http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/nova-scotia-farmer-patricia-bishop-flax-clothing-1.3884439
      Clive

      Reply
  11. Jill Nicholls

    I wonder if this project is still going? You mentioned in one post , looking overseas for information and machine plans. Perhaps you are unaware that NZ grew linen flax right up until the 1980’s at Geraldine in Canterbury. I saw the factory working about 1983 I think. I believe it had been bought by a person who hoped to make a living with the linen flax, both production of fire and also as a for tourism venture. You should be able to get information from the Geraldine CAB.
    good luck!

    Reply
    1. Clive Post author

      Yes as mentioned above Sylvia is experimenting with a winter crop. Next time I’m in Geraldine I’ll make some enquiries about that venture. Thanks for the info.

      Reply
  12. Alec Saunders

    Linen flax was grown extensively during and just after WW II as flax fibre was needed for fire hoses, military uniforms and other uses. The seed was also valuable. It was mostly grown in the lower parts of the South Island, where the climate produced good crops, which were pulled from the ground mechanically then processed at several plants in places like Winton, Washdyke, Fairlie and Geraldine, which was the last factory operating. The enterprise was run by a government corporation which ceased production in the late fifties.

    Reply
    1. Clive Post author

      Thanks for the background. Yes it was a proven crop in NZ for some time. Not sure why it was grown so much in the South Island as it does well in the North too. We have been experimenting with a winter crop this last season and just putting in another now. It takes longer to grow (4 months as opposed to three in the summer) but watering isn’t a problem and the quality is a little better we think. The other issue with the winter crop is the lack of seeds produced. We think two or three crops a year are easily possible.

      Reply
  13. Ashley Scott

    Hey, I just found this page, hows the flax growing going?? It sounds like an incredible project!

    Are you making fabric yet??

    So fascinated by your project!

    Reply

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