Ike visits Paetawa Flax Mill

Di and Ike took an interesting visit to Paetawa Flax Mill, north of Waikanae on the Kapiti Coast of New Zealand, Aotearoa. Prior to the establishment of flax mills at the foothills of the Tararua Ranges, Maori used areas of bulrush and plume grass for the thatching of houses. Flax provided the fibre for the manufacture of clothing, cordage and fishing nets. According to Alan H. Akers (1978)* the area was renowned for successive groups struggling to gain control or retain possession of the land and its resources. Flax mills were established in the mid-1890s to cater for the overseas demand for tow bales for rope and twine making. These products were used in New Zealand for upholstery. 20 acres of flax provided employment for one man.

Historiacal flax cutter and tram line
Image credit: Horowhenua Historical Society Inc.

The flax cutters became known as the “flaxies”. The mills also employed skilled labour, e.g. engineers, blacksmiths and stripper-keepers (Akers, 1978). Immigrants from Britain, Denmark and Italy came to work in the swamplands during the peak of the industry Akers, 1978). Archibald Brown (1859–1941) milled flax (Harakeke/ Phormium tenax) in these buildings from 1905 to 1930.

Ian’s sketch map of the plot circa 1981

The big shed in the background housed the ‘feeder’ (used to rake the green skin off the flax), the ‘scutcher’ (used to polish the washed, dried and bleached flax), and an engine to power the equipment. Paddocks were used for drying; either on fence lines or flat on the ground. After 3-4 days, the fibre was turned and 2 days later taken to the scutching shed. After scutching or flailing, the fibre was made into hanks and pressed into bales. Between 10 and 12 tons of flax produced 1 ton of fibre.

Part of flax processing mill c1905

The stable to right of the gate housed draught horses that pulled drays of green flax from the swamp or delivered bales of fibre to Waikanae railway station.

Horse stable and dray storage c1905

World War I had a big impact on the flax fibre industry due to demand for hard fibres in Europe and the USA. Record prices reached $140 per ton in 1918. And 32,000 tons being exported from New Zealand. WWI came to an end in 1919. Increased freight rates and falling prices together with yellow-leaf disease caused the mill’s closure. Changes in land use followed from the 1960s to date and is now grazing for livestock (cows and sheep). The descendants of Archibald Brown still live on the farm and manage it. The hills and wetlands have never been restored to their former glory. Find out more by watching these two short clips:

Book reference: Akers, A.H. 1978. From fibre to food – Opiki: The District and its Development. Pages 5 – 22.