Foxton was once home to a thriving Flax industry. New Zealand Flax (Harakeke) was an important fibre for Māori who used it for baskets, fishing nets and clothing and it remains a special taonga (treasure). From the early 1800’s the export trade started – which gave rise to Foxton’s flax mills.
Come and experience the Foxton Flax Stripper Museum – lovingly operated by local volunteers.
A tour of the Foxton Flax Stripper Museum includes seeing a rare Flax mill in operation and photographic displays showcasing Foxton’s Flax history.
The flax stripper used in the museum is one that was operating at a firm called Bonded Felts, owned by Bill Hoskins. It was designed by Mr E Sutton in 1930 and was capable of stripping 16 tons of green leaf in a day.
The other piece of machinery owned by the museum is a "scrutcher" donated by a farmer near Blenheim. The flax stripper takes the fibre of the green leaf, requiring 750 gallons of water per minute to be washed over the fibre during the stripping process. After stripping it is put out in the sun to dry and bleach. The scutcher takes out all the short fibres and polishes up the flax for a smooth finish.
Phormium Tenax (commonly known as "harakeke" or "native flax") has played an important part in the history of Aotearoa/New Zealand, for inside the long green leaves of this plant there lies a strong white fibre, suitable for the manufacture of cordage and textiles. The Māori people utilised this fibre for hundreds of years, extracting it from the leaf with a mussel shell and preparing it for weaving or plaiting by a slow and laborious process of scraping, washing and beating.
Most flax mills were small in size, containing only one or two strippers. However, they were an important source of employment, for each stripper provided work for 20-25 men. Flax leaves were cut by hand in the swamp, tied in bundles, carted to the mills. The processed fibre was then pressed into bales, tied with ropes and carted to the nearest port or railway station for transport to market. Most of the fibre was exported to Australia, Britain and North America, where it was manufactured into rope and twine, but a small quantity was also spun into cordage within New Zealand.
The largest flax mills in New Zealand (containing between four and seven strippers) were erected in the Manawatu region, which became the centre of the flax milling industry after the year 1890. Important improvements in swamp management, flax cultivation, mill design and mechanical efficiency were pioneered in Manawatu and exported to other flax milling regions, which included Northland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Marlborough, Canterbury, Otago, Southland and Westland.
The production of phormium fibre on a large scale did not commence until the late 1860s, when a machine was invented to beat the green leaf between a revolving metal drum and a fixed metal bar. Metal beaters on the surface of the drum struck the leaf at great speed, stripping away the non-fibrous material and releasing the strands of fibre.
Foxton was home to a number of Flax Mills situated on the Manawatu Riverbank (now, the Loop).