Flax cultivars for weaving

This coming Friday 18th August, the Canterbury Botanical Society will be having a guided tour of the Rene Orchiston, living harakeke collection at Landcare Research, Lincoln. Meet outside the main reception, 54 Gerald St, by 1.25pm.  Parking is limited, so it is recommended to find a roadside parking space, and walk to Landcare Research.

The collection comprises over 60 varieties of flax selected by Maori weavers and brought into cultivation for their diverse properties.  To understand what  I mean by that, download the catalogue (PDF) and read some of the descriptions.

Rene Orchiston collection – catalogue

The catalogue also has a brief introduction to the many uses and history of NZ flax, that is well worth reading.

The varieties include both swamp flax/harakeke (Phormium tenax) and mountain flax/wharariki (Phormium cookianum).

Harakeke is the 3m tall stiff bladed flax that fills the marshy ground beside lakes, rivers and lagoons as in this variety copied from the catalogue

ARAWA (42)
Source: Rotoiti area.
Description:  Straight, fairly long, medium green blades. Up to 2.5 m tall. Reddish-orange margin and keel. Very high flower heads but seldom flowers.

Uses:  Excellent muka harakeke. The best Mrs Orchiston found

detail from a family portrait. My great grandmother modelling a bone patu with flax wrist loop, bone hei tiki and a feather cloak (colours are hand tints by the printer late 19th C)

for producing long strands of clean fibre with hāro method (stripping with a shell).

Good for piupiu because it is so easy to prepare. Especially good for ladies piupiu because of the length although the prepared strips do not dry as strong as other cultivars. When boiled for one minute, it dries to a cream colour. Ideal for whenu and aho in kākahu and for muka kete.

Without harakeke and it’s muka the weaving methods of taaniko and feather cloaks might not have developed.


Wharariki is that tough and shiny chest high tussock that flexes to the wind in exposed sites from coastal cliffs up into the sub-alpine zone where it joins hebe, turpentine scrub and mountain daisies above the treeline.  Wharariki is pliable but it is difficult to extract the fibre so is more likely to be used in weaving such as kete/baskets, as in this example from the catalogue

Source: Tairawhiti (East Coast).
Description:  Short, bendy, bright yellow-green blades, giving the bush a yellowish
Uses:  Very valuable for kete as it dries to a clear yellow when boiled for half a minute. Gives good contrast for patterns when used with other cultivars. When unboiled, it dries to rich bronze-golden shades. Not a muka variety.


For a full story on the history of NZ flax this link goes to a New Zealand Geographic article, that starts in a replica collection, in a paddock near Takaka Flax-the enduring fibre, NZ Geographic

Heres a condensed video, from paddock to wardrobe, of the making of a mans (short) piupiu.


kete: a basket

kākahu: a cloak

muka: the fibre that remains after the flesh and skin of the leaf is stripped away.

aho: in weaving, the weft.

piupiu: skirt of dried and jointed harakeke leaves woven at the waist to form a belt.

whenu: in weaving, the warp

This entry was posted in Canterbury Botanical Society, craft, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Flax cultivars for weaving

  1. What a great place you live in.

    Liked by 1 person

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