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Conservation Comment: Fantastic flax fibre

Sep 17, 2023

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Harakeke has a long history of use as a fibre.

In 2019, the New Zealand government banned single-use plastic shopping bags to reduce the amount of plastic in our environment. Many shops have changed to paper bags or, at a small cost, will supply reusable bags made of lightweight synthetic fibres such as nylon and polypropylene.

The same non-woven polypropylene fabric is often used to cover cushion inners, duvets, and pillows. Whether as a bag or as a cushion, this fabric eventually rips, and then disintegrates into a dusty powder. And it is still plastic. It is still a pollutant, and when it turns to dust, it becomes an almost-invisible hazard we are surrounding ourselves with.

Some shops also sell reusable cloth bags made of cotton, jute, or hessian. These are really useful natural fibres, but they are all imported, and in the long term are not so sustainable.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, we have our own wonderful endemic fibre plant. We have harakeke, or Phormium tenax! It grows everywhere and has a long history of use as a fibre. Have a look in the ripped seat of an old sofa and you will see not disintegrating plastic foam, but harakeke fibre, or muka, often with a layer of fluff made out of recycled textile batting.

In the past, harakeke was the fibre of choice for all kinds of purposes throughout Aotearoa. Used for clothing, containers, nets, ropes, shoes, bags, toys and mats, harakeke was an essential resource for Māori.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, flax-stripping machines made large quantities of fibre that were turned into rope, woolpacks, flooring underfelt, plasterboard and upholstery. Carpets made of harakeke fibre were used throughout New Zealand schools as the "mat" for children to sit on, with thicker ones as tumble mats in the school gymnasiums.

In its raw, unprocessed state, harakeke has beautiful strong leaves perfect for weaving bags of all shapes and sizes. When I was a child, my family visited the town library every Friday where we each selected three books, which at that time was the limit for borrowing. We had a special "library kete" large enough to hold and carry the 18 books we chose.

It was strong and it lasted many years. I don't know what became of it, but like all kete made of harakeke, when it fell apart, it could be put out into the garden to gradually rot down and turn back into the earth. A truly sustainable bag.

It would be possible for Aotearoa New Zealand to not only ban single-use plastic bags but to greatly reduce the use of plastic as a source of fibre. With updated processing technology, we should be able to increase the use of natural fibre such as muka that can be grown right here. When the finished products wear out, they can rot back into the earth. Our own truly sustainable natural fibre.

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