1861 - Whytlaw, M. New Zealand Flax - [Text] p 1-16

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  1861 - Whytlaw, M. New Zealand Flax - [Text] p 1-16
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I HAVE been induced to comply with the request of several friends that I should publish an account of my recent experience in preparing the flax of this Colony for manufacturing purposes; by observing that, since the passing of the Patent Act of last year, one or two parties are about to enter upon the same field of speculation; and having myself no intention to take advantage of such protection, I am the more desirous that my method of preparing the flax should be generally known; both because I still believe it to be the most efficient and simple yet invented, and that no one hereafter may claim exclusive right to the use of that which has been discovered by another. To such benefits as may arise from the knowledge of my own invention and experience, I make the colony at large most heartily welcome.

It is unnecessary for me to give any description of a plant so well known as the Phormium Tenax, from which the flax of this Colony is obtained, as that is to be found in almost every work on New Zealand, from the days of Cook downwards; but I shall have occasion hereafter to refer to some of its peculiarities and habits, when I come to treat of the mode of cultivating it. In the mean time, let it suffice for me to state that each leaf of the plant contains a double series of fibres, those on the front being stronger and apparently coarser than those on the back. The natives, in their method of preparing the flax, reject the latter entirely, as is well known, or employ them for making their Tahas. Let any one examine a leaf of this plant, and consider how such fibres can be extricated expeditiously and without injury from the mass of mucilagenous matter in which they are naturally embedded, and he will soon be convinced that the problem is no easy one to solve; and

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also will not be surprised to learn that, perhaps, no indigenous production of any country has had more attention bestowed upon it for the purpose of devising means of turning it to profitable account than this has had. To enumerate the various attempts which have been made both at home and in this colony to accomplish the desired object, would fill a volume; it would be useless, therefore, to go into such details. I can well remember, however, when I first visited Auckland in 1842-3, the excitement which then prevailed throughout the whole community upon this subject. It was truly amusing to find, day after day, one nostrum after another vaunted by its possessor as the great discovery, and each having his pocket sample to shew in confirmation of his success. It is no exaggeration to say, that there was scarcely a pot in Auckland at that time that had not been diverted from its legitimate uses for the purposes of this secret alchemy, if I may so apply the term. The object then aimed at was, to soften the leaf so that the fibres might be easily separated from it, and also that the gummy substance pervading the flax, and rendering it brittle when dry, might be got quit of. Chemistry being the science ransacked by the eager experimentalists, and but few of them being well acquainted with its principles, it is easy to imagine what dire compounds were sometimes tried, and that no practical results were likely to follow.

The reaction of public feeling after so many failures, made it rather a formidable undertaking for any one subsequently to renew the attempt. Indeed, until within a few years back, the circumstance that an individual was devoting his attention to the subject, was sufficient to elicit from the party informed an expression of pity, or rather of compassion, towards the foolish enthusiast, as he was supposed to be.

But, besides chemical appliances, many endeavoured to accomplish their object by mechanical means; amongst these, I am not aware that, at that time, any one brought his invention to a practical bearing--in the Province of Auckland I mean--but a Mr. Holman, of

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Wangari, whose method consisted of attaching bunches of the leaves to the periphery of a water wheel, and making them descend successively upon coarse hackles and blunt knives, and then through the running stream beneath. In this way he succeeded in producing an article fit, as he thought, for making wool lashings; but when tried in that way, the result greatly injured the business reputation of the respectable ropespinner who used it. It was not until a year or two after my return to the colony in 1847, that my own attention was directed specially to the subject, and that I made an attempt, in conjunction with other parties, to establish a business by the preparation of flax, according to a method known only to myself. My plan was to take the flax as prepared by the natives, valued at £15 or £20 per ton, and by subjecting it to my process so to increase its value in the home market as to fetch there £50 or £60 per ton. After the works were erected, a parcel of 4 or 5 cwts. of native flax was submitted to the action of the solvent, but, unfortunately, in this first experiment, an error was committed which irretrievably destroyed the fibre, and my partners, from motives best known to themselves, immediately broke up the concern, and would allow no further trial, although urged to do so, Californian speculations then affording a much more promising field for the investment of capital than an enterprise so novel as the one attempted. To explain the cause of the failure just mentioned, I have to state that the material I employed as a solvent was caustic potash, or soda, which, when used at a given strength and in water at a temperature of 160° to 200° Fahrenheit, effectually dissolves the gummy matter and makes the fibre soft and pliable without injuring its strength; but if the temperature is raised above the latter point, or the water be allowed to boil, the fibre is instantly destroyed, as unfortunately was the case in the trial referred to. Independently, however, of such a result, it must be allowed that there was danger in leaving a rather nice chemical operation to be conducted by ordinary workmen, even under

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superintendence, and, therefore, I am strongly of opinion that where the application of scientific knowledge is necessary, it is better to have the process conducted in England, where skilled labor is more easily obtainable than in the colony. But another difficulty also soon became apparent, arising from the uncertainty of the supplies of flax from the natives. It is well known to all who have had to do with them, that no dependence whatever can be placed on their promises to do anything within a given time. "Taihoa," being one of the first words, the meaning of which a stranger learns to his cost who may have trusted to their punctuality. On the whole, therefore, it was perhaps well that this first method was abandoned.

Being, nevertheless, still impressed with the importance of the object aimed at, my efforts were next directed to the discovery of some method of obtaining, by mechanical means, supplies of fibre directly from the plant, and thus be independent of the natives. I was quite aware that numerous unsuccessful efforts had been previously made by others to accomplish the same thing, but it was not until I had constructed some five or six different machines, some of which worked tolerably well, that I began fully to understand the difficulties which had to be contended with, and to despair of ultimate success. In this state of mind, I was one day returning from my laboratory, when the thought suddenly occurred to me, that the cause of my own failures hitherto as well as those of others, must have been owing to the endeavour to imitate, by machinery, the manipulation of the natives by operating along the leaf, whereas the proper way to separate the fibres, would be by an action across the leaf. So convinced was I, that I had at last hit upon the true principle upon which a flax dressing machine should be constructed, that I returned forthwith to the laboratory, grooved a couple of pieces of hard wood, and fixing one of them in the vice, placed, a leaf of flax upon it, and with the other rubbed across it, and I was immediately satisfied that I had made a valuable discovery. I was the more confirmed in my

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opinion on my way home afterwards, when passing through the Government Domain, I noticed, what, strange to say, I had never done before, that at the ends of those flax leaves which had been chewed by the cattle, an operation quite analagous to the one I had just been performing in my experiment, there appeared tufts of clean fibre. So obvious did the matter now appear, that I avoided looking at those tufts of flax thus cleaned by the cattle when any one passed, lest the hint should be taken and I should be forestalled in my invention! As soon as possible, I got a working model constructed on the principle just mentioned, and finding it to act perfectly, I invited three confidential friends to witness its performance; these were the Colonial Treasurer, the late Mr. Shepherd, W. S. Grahame, Esq., and Wm. Kennedy, of the Union Bank. Their opinion was abundantly gratifying, and it determined me to proceed to more extensive operations.

Before noticing these, however, I will endeavour to describe the machine I had just invented, and although it will be rather difficult to do so without diagrams, I believe I shall he able to make my explanation intelli-ble enough. 1

Let the reader, then, take a common parallel ruler, and holding one of the leaves fixed, move the other one backwards and forwards, and he will produce precisely the motion given to the principal part of my machine, which consists of a traversing bar, hinged like the parallel ruler, and by a connecting rod, joined to a crank, the necessary reciprocating movement is given; the eccentricity of the crank being 1 1/2 inches. This traversing bar rests upon its edge, and is 3 1/2 inches wide, by two feet in length, and if made of wood, which answers very well, should be sufficiently thick to make it stiff, about 1 1/8 inches will be thick enough. On the

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face of this bar are screwed three grooved plates, of cast metal, chilled iron being what I found to answer best, each of these being 5 inches long, by three inches wide, and 3/8 thick. The grooves are about four to the inch, and lie at an angle of about 15° from the perpendicular. This traversing bar, with its grooved surface, is hinged to, and works inside of, a frame of wood or iron, on the side of which, opposite to the bar, are three recesses, in each of which there is a block of hard wood fitting nicely, but freely, the recess in which it works. These blocks measure 5 x 3 x 3, and to the face of them, opposite the traversing bar, are attached grooved iron plates, similar to those on the bar. It is evident that if these blocks were fixed, and near enough to the traversing bar as it passed, the two surfaces opposed to each other would jam; but these blocks are each provided with a spring of vulcanized india rubber behind them, which allows the block to yield to the action of the traversing bar, and the two grooved surfaces to rub past each other. These blocks are further provided with stops which retain them in their proper places so as to cause a space of about half an inch to arise between the surfaces every time the traversing bar reaches the extremity of its movement; this being necessary to allow the leaf of flax to pass between them, as its surface is successively exposed to their action. Just above the opening between the plates alluded to, the feeding rollers are placed, which consist of a grooved iron roller, and one covered with vulcanized india rubber, which effectually hold the flax and pass it down at the required speed to the action of the plates below. Above the feeding rollers, a bar of wood is placed 18 inches x 6 x 1 1/2. This bar is supported on its edge, and three mortices are cut through it of a size just sufficient to allow a leaf of flax to pass freely through them, and these serve as guides to direct the leaf of flax to the feeding rollers, and also to prevent them falling to the side. When a leaf of flax is dropped into one of those guides, it is immediately seized by the feeding rollers, and passing them, it is exposed to the action of the

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two rubbing surfaces below, and leaves the machine with the fibres perfectly disengaged, and hanging parallel to each other without confusion or injury, the mucilaginous matter contained in the leaf having served to protect them from the too severe action of the rubbing surfaces. The boy who attends the machine sits before it, and with one hand supplies it with leaves placed beside him, whilst with the other he collects into hand-fulls the dressed flax; and when he has sufficient, he places it in a holder by his side. When those holders are full, other boys take them away, and put down empty ones. The flax is then put out on galvanized wire lines to dry and come to a proper colour, which it does in a few days. It is then slightly scutched to remove the dust, and the flax is ready for the market.

Such, then, is my process of preparing the flax of this colony, and I trust that the description of my machine is sufficiently clear and intelligible that any good mechanic could make one from it. It will be observed that the entirely, novel principle of a cross action upon the leaf, and the mode of its application, are what I claim to be my own discovery and invention.

I may mention that the size of one of these machines is only about 2 feet long, 1 foot high, and 14 inches wide, and will produce one hundred pounds of dressed flax per day weighed after it has been dried. It has been objected that my machine requires to be fed by hand; but let any one examine the leaves of flax, scarcely two of which are alike in length, breadth, thickness, or shape, and he will, soon be convinced that to make a machine automatic in that respect is impossible. The disadvantage, if indeed it be one, as a boy must attend at any rate to receive the product, is fully counterbalanced by the rapidity with which the leaves are passed through, being about eight per minute. The power requisite to drive these machines, I estimate at one horse power for every four of them, and the cost of them should not exceed £10 each, if made of metal, and in the best manner, of course, if made of wood, they would be much cheaper.

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In cutting the leaves of flax from the plant, care should be taken to do so not more than an inch below where the two sides of the leaf begin to adhere to each other, and the sooner they are passed through the machine the better. It may be often found convenient, however, to preserve them fresh for some time after they are cut, and this can be easily done by simply immersing the cut ends of the leaves in a shallow pond of water; if they are immersed an inch or two it will be quite enough, and they will, in this way, keep fresh for some weeks. The green leaves will soon be destroyed if they are heaped together.

There are, it is well known, several varieties of the flax plant, but I found that the finer sorts yielded the largest quantity of fibre, the average being from 20 to 22 1/2 per cent, of the raw material, cut in dry weather. Any one desirous to know the varieties of the plant had better consult some intelligent native on the subject, as the characteristics of them are, in some cases, not very obvious, and cannot be easily described.

From what has been said, it will not be difficult to form an estimate of the cost of one ton of flax prepared by my method. Suppose that the raw material can be laid down at the Factory for £1 per ton (and it ought not to cost more), then:--

. . . . . . . . . . .. . £ s. d.
Five Tons Green Flax, @ 20s. ... 5 0 0
Wages of 20 boys, @ 1s. 6d. day... 1 10 0
Do. do. drying and housing 1 10 0
Interest on Capital, wear and tear ... 0 10 0
Steam power... ... ... ... 1 0 0
Cost of 1 ton Flax ... ... £9 10 0

--The two last items are charged high, and from the last one, a large deduction must be made if water power is employed. On the whole, however, it may be safe to estimate the cost of one ton of flax, prepared by my method, to be about £10 per ton, and for the article so manufactured, I repeatedly obtained not less than £22 10s. and £23 a ton in Auckland, and £30 a ton

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at Melbourne. The best test of the value of an article is what it fetches in the market, and, tried by that test, I had abundant reason to be satisfied with my manufacture.

The question will, no doubt, here naturally occur to the reader, if such a large profit was realized from your manufacture, why did you not continue to prosecute the business? and this leads me to refer to my proceedings both at the Waikato and at Matakana, from which it will appear that the unsuccessful results of my labors arose from circumstances over which I had no control, and which no sagacity could have foreseen.

I chose the Waikato as the first field for my operations, chiefly on account of the ample supply of the raw material found there; and I erected a small Factory worked by horse power. The difficulties I had to contend with, however, were both numerous and formidable, but, nevertheless, they could have been overcome had not an insuperable one arisen from the discovery of gold in Australia shortly after I had commenced operations. Those only who were in this colony at the time when the news of that event arrived, know how completely all departments of business were affected by it; and in my own case, made it simply impracticable to prosecute my undertaking, so I shelved it at once, and proceeded via Australia to England. Thus, a second time, singular to say, were my interests injured, and my object defeated by auriferous influences.

It was during my short residence at the Waikato that I was asked to forward a sample of my manufacture to the great Exhibition of 1851, which accordingly I did, and although the parcel had been hastily prepared,

I had the satisfaction afterwards to find it among the "Honourable mentioned" in the Committee's report. I also forwarded drawings and a description of my flax dressing machine to Sir David Brewster, who kindly did me the honor of bringing them under the notice of the British Association for the advancement of science at their meeting at Belfast in 1852.

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It was when in England, in 1855, that I made my third and final attempt to accomplish the important object I had had in view, and formed for this purpose a connection with two esteemed friends there, who, on laying my plans and estimates before them, entered very cordially into the undertaking. It is evident that, in preparing my estimates and expressing my opinions to them on the subject, I could only be guided by the condition of the colony when I had left it three years before; at which time, as is well known to those who were here, land could have been purchased at merely nominal rates, and there were many most favourable localities for a flax business from the abundance of the natural supplies of the raw material in them. On returning to Auckland, however, in December, 1855, after having made arrangements at home for all the requisites of a large Factory to follow me; my dismay may be imagined, when I found that a complete revolution had taken place in the state of the colony during my absence. Land could not now be purchased but at most extravagant rates, and a system of burning off for cattle runs had rendered various districts in which abundance of flax had formerly existed utterly unavailable for my purpose. I searched in various directions for a suitable site for my operations, advertized repeatedly for land supplied with flax, but in vain; and at last, urged to a decision by the circumstance of a shipment of machinery and labourers being on the way to the colony, I fixed on the only site I had under offer, and that was at Matakana; a very desirable locality certainly in many respects, but deficient in what formed the principal desideratum, supplies of the raw material. In the hope, however, that ere those natural supplies would become exhausted, we might be able to plant a sufficient quantity of flax for the requirements of the Factory, I proceeded with its erection, and in due time had all in working order, consisting of a steam engine of 15 horse power, and thirty-two machines, with other requisites for the business. The article produced, as I have already said, met with a ready sale at the prices

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formerly mentioned, and the waste material itself sold readily at £18 per ton for upholster's purposes. It soon became evident, however, that the natural supplies of flax would in a short time cease, even although I employed a small vessel to fetch the article from various places along the coast, and I may observe, here, that almost every person, but such as have a practical knowledge of the subject, when looking at a field of flax, fall into the error of imagining the quantity to be very much greater than it actually is. An illustration of this occurred during the period now referred to. A respectable settler, and an old one too, happening to meet me when looking out for fresh sources of supply for the works, said, "Oh, Mr. Whitlow, if you send your vessel down to our neighbourhood, I can shew you flax in abundance sufficient to supply you for months, if not for a year." "Well, I said, Mr. M., I am not inclined to send quite so far for flax, yet as you assure me of such abundant supplies, I will send a cutting party and try whether it will be profitable to do so." Accordingly, I did so, and exhausted this promising field in about three weeks!

To have cultivated the flax for supplying our works, about 200 acres of land would require to have been well cleared, ploughed, and fenced, the cost of which, together with that of procuring and planting so many thousand roots of the best sorts of flax, appeared so formidable, that my partners at home shrank from so much additional expenditure, and, together with myself, finally resolved to abandon the undertaking.

I have given this brief sketch of my efforts to establish a flax business in this colony, both for the purpose of showing the true causes of their failure to such as have watched my proceedings with interest, and to prevent any one from supposing that, as yet, no efficient method of preparing the flax of this colony has been discovered. Nothing could be more simple and efficient than the method already described, and the prices repeatedly obtained for the prepared article have demonstrated its value. I have little doubt that when

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the blessings of peace are restored to this unfortunate colony, and spare capital he relieved from old established channels, this most important source of colonial wealth will be again resorted as one of the most promising fields for commercial enterprise. In the mean time, I would take leave to suggest to our settlers throughout the country, that most profitable employment might, even now, be found for themselves and families, by having one of my machines on their station, and working it when other operations of the farm did not require their attention. In this way, a few hundred weights might be now and then prepared, and in the course of the year a ton or two of flax could be sent to the market, adding £30 or £40 to the yearly income of the family a sum not to be despised at any period, but more especially in these hard times. Were such a system to prevail throughout the colony, doubtless agents would soon appear who would travel about and pick up what each settler had prepared, and thus gradually a large export of flax might be made from the colony.

I have already stated that about one-fourth of a horse power is required to drive one of these machines, but in the event of such power, or that of wind or water not being conveniently to be had, the machine is so constructed that one-third, two-thirds, or the whole can be used at a time, thus making it available for manual labor when that alone can be had.

It is greatly to be regretted that large quantities of the flax plant have been destroyed of late years throughout the country; first by being burnt off* and then allowing the cattle to feed upon the tender shoots, by which means the flax is irretrievably injured and finally disappears.

To such as may be disposed to operate on a more extensive scale than I have just alluded to, I would now offer a few directions as to planting the flax, which appears to be the only way of now obtaining adequate supplies of the raw material for such a purpose.

The flax plant, it is well known, is an exceedingly

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hardy one; the root may be taken out of the ground and left exposed for days, or even weeks, to the weather, and yet retain its vitality. It is doubtless best, however, to transplant it in as fresh a state as possible. The ground, which should be of good quality, must be well cleared of weeds, ploughed, and harrowed. The plants, after having all the leaves but the centre one cut off, may be put in either by means of a furrow made by the plough and earthed up with the hoe, at distances of not less than three feet apart from each other, and the furrows six feet apart. Or, the plants may be placed by fours in shallow holes of two feet diameter, inclining the plants outwards and heaping the earth up in the centre. These groups of plants should be placed six feet apart from each other. This is the method usually adopted by the natives, but either way will do. It will be advantageous to leave a path of ten or twelve feet in width between the beds of plants for the convenience of fetching out the leaves when cut; and these beds should not exceed forty or fifty feet in breadth. The flax will grow if planted at almost any season, but the proper time for doing so is during the winter months, and in eighteen months afterwards the first crop of leaves may be cut. I have already described how this ought to be done, but I may here add that if it be an object to obtain a very fine delicate fibre, this can be secured by keeping the inner or younger leaves by themselves which contain fibres of the most beautiful texture. The rapidity with which the plant grows and propagates itself by offsets when the land is well prepared, is surprising. I have repeatedly found the increase to be not less than sixfold per annum, so that a very few years would suffice to convert land, planted in the manner I have just described, into a dense mass of flax, and yielding many tons per acre for the purposes of the Factory. It would be impossible to state any definite quantity, as the produce per acre, the yield will entirely depend upon the time the field may have been planted and the goodness of the soil. I may state, however, as the result of repeated and careful

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experiments, that a single plant will produce from 6 to 8 leaves per annum, and that 1000 leaves will yield about 21 lbs. of prepared fibre, or, as formerly stated, from 22 to 22 1/2 per cent, in weight of the leaves cut in dry weather. I believe that the leaves may be cut at any season of the year without injury to the plant, provided, as I have already stated, the centre shoot is left untouched. In a field laid out and planted as I have already described, one stout youth could easily cut and fetch out to the road about five hundred weight per day, and the flax would then be taken to the Factory by a dray.

With reference to drying the fibres after having left the mill, I may state that I found single lines of galvanized wire to answer exceedingly well, as when the handfulls of flax were loosely tied to these lines, they could be turned over and otherwise handled with great rapidity when the boys became accustomed to the work.

In packing the flax for shipment, I used a hydraulic Jack, of 10 tons pressure, and found that I could compress the bales into about 100 cubic feet per ton weight, or 2 1/4 tons measurement. Probably, with a more powerful press, they could be reduced still more; but in estimating the charges for freight, at least 80 cubic feet ought to be allowed for every ton weight of flax.

I do not know that I could add anything more in the way of information to such as may contemplate engaging in the flax business. It would be easy to expatiate on the advantages to the colony, were parties with enterprise and capital now to prosecute it with vigour. The way has been cleared of its most formidable difficulty, namely, the previous want of a simple and efficient method of obtaining the fibre from the plant. And the experience of numerous pioneers would facilitate operations which formerly daunted many courageous minds. It is well known that the principal hindrance to the introduction of New Zealand flax amongst the home manufacturers, has been the irregularity of the supplies; were that obstacle once removed,

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they would readily be at the expense of altering their machinery for its use, and a much higher price than has hitherto been obtained would doubtless be given for an article which possesses so many valuable properties.

It is to be hoped that the settlers in New Zealand, especially in this Northern portion of it, will not rest satisfied with merely growing wheat, corn, and potatoes, or even wool. This colony is comparatively limited in its extent of land available for such purposes, and the wool growers at the South are already treading on each others toes for want of space to stretch out. Whereas if the valuable indigenous production of our soil, to which I have called attention, were carefully cultivated, large tracts of land, otherwise useless, would become valuable, and even the nooks and corners of our mountain ridges be made to yield much profitable produce. In the event of the plan previously suggested of each settler having his flax dressing machine now and then at work, becoming general, I would not despair of seeing, in a very few years, the value of our exports enhanced to a degree that would surprise the community. Be this as it may, however, I have now thrown in my mite for the general good, and although my knowledge and experience in this matter has not hitherto benefited myself in a pecuniary point of view, I trust that others, under more favourable circumstances, may ultimately reap abundant advantages.

Wangaroa, October, 1861.

1   It was my intention to have forwarded one of my machines to the International Exhibition of 1862, but I have found it impossible to get it ready in time. I shall, however, have one finished for exhibition in Auckland, as soon as possible, of which due notice will be given through the public papers.

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