Ray Caird, author of a beautiful book about flax, visits the last functioning flaxmill in New Zealand.
Riverton has seen plenty of raw. It’s at the western end of Southland’s Oreti Beach, and was a Ngha Tahu hunting haunt astride the pretty Jacobs river estuary. It’s one of our oldest port towns. Whalers, gold seekers, sawmillers, fishermen and flax millers have harboured here. And it was made famous by the raw horsepower of the legendary Burt Munro, who broke and still holds a world motorcycle speed record, and was played by Anthony Hopkins in The World’s Fastest Indian.
Just outside of town is the last functioning Flaxmill in New Zealand. The Templeton Flax Mill Heritage Museum is picturesque,situated on land once rich with flax, and now surrounded by the Templeton’s dairy farm.
As the author of Blood of the Flax, a book devoted to the wonders of harakeke, I needed to go there and see this living piece of New Zealand history with my own eyes.
I arrived at a redbrown corrugated iron shed close to the beach. Inside is a lovingly restored working museum.
Trustee Vaughan Templeton demonstrated how to cut flax. He picked up a couple of leaves and with deft exactness fed the mouth of the stripper machine.
It grabbed at the flax and the scream it made was a noise like no other, a cross between the whine of a jet engine and the yowl of 1000 cats being stripped to death.
This same cast-iron mouth gobbled over 12 tons of flax every day for many years. It’s a vicious beast that demands not a single moment’s lapse in concentration as it strips off the green at a feverish speed.
From there I saw the slimy fibre washed, and then samples, sun-bleach dried, were fed into another dangerous beast called the scutcher to remove short strands (the tow), before being hanked and bailed.
For a short time 150 years ago there were 400 flax mills operating throughout Aotearoa. It was all boom and bust – and physical injury. I can see how so many fingers and hands were lost, and why deafness was common.
June Templeton says there’s a growing demand for flax from traditional harakeke fibre weavers, artists, crafts people and museums.
Orders also come from epic movies. Flax fibre was used in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, although Vaughan says he couldn’t see it. Perhaps it was in the pillows of the hobbits, he mused.
We paused for a cuppa. It felt good to be in the land of the rolling R’s – a tongue rolling R is the Southland secret handshake. We reflected upon the bigger story, the whare pora, the community of weavers, how every kete tells a story.
Blood of the Flax by Ray Caird (Kete Media, $45) is available in bookstores nationwide or direct from Copy Press.