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What Is Flax Weaving?

By Rebecca Cartwright
Updated Feb 02, 2024
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Flax weaving is a traditional art of the Maori people, the indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand. The plant used for flax weaving is New Zealand flax, an entirely different plant than that is used to make linen. In flax weaving, pieces of the plant's leaves are woven, while linen is a fiber extracted from the stems of the linen flax plant. The flax weaving technique is very versatile, and until the adoption of European products, the Maori people produced clothing, home furnishings and tools for fishing, hunting and food gathering with it. Flax weaving was little used for many years but toward the end of the 20th century there was renewed interest in learning and using it.

The Maori people cultivated the plants they used for flax weaving to ensure a constant supply of the raw material. Phormium tenax, or harakeke, was most often used. Phormium cookianum, or wharariki, has softer, thinner leaves which are best suited for use by beginners and for making small items. These plants grow in clumps of long, tough leaves which are harvested as needed. As long as cutting is properly done the plants will continue to grow and leaves can be harvested again and again.

Flax leaves must be processed before being woven. The rigid central rib is removed and the remaining leaf is cut into long strips. These are softened with the edge of a dull knife, or with the edge of a mussel shell. They can then be allowed to dry a bit before weaving, or boiled and then dried for future use. Boiling helps remove the plant juices and ensures a better product for storage.

Most of the clothes the Maori wore were woven from flax, including skirts, loin clothes, cloaks and belts. Rain capes were made with a special two layer technique that allowed them to shed water. Woven flax is strong enough for foot gear and the Maori made sandals from it. On long trips travelers might carry extra flax strips to weave new sandals as their older ones wore out.

In addition to clothing, flax weaving was used to make many types of baskets, mats, and bird snares. Ropes and sails were also frequently woven. Fishing nets of different designs were produced depending on the intended use. Some nets, meant for deep-sea fishing, could be as long as 3,000 to 3,200 feet (roughly 900 to 1,000 meters).

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