In a recent post we shared with you the awesome array of flower stems of the New Zealand Flax – Phormium Tenax. After last year’s no-show (too dry), the plants were rested : then, this summer, the weather and soil conditions (warm and damp) have proved to be perfect for these magnificent plants. For visitors to the walled garden, the magnificent display has become quite a conversation-starter!
Most visitors say they’ve never seen or heard of them (even those from Devon and Cornwall – where we know there’s plenty in private gardens). A family of Kiwis were struck dumb when faced with their own ignorance that these majestic plants are native to New Zealand!
A few visitors have shown off their horticultural knowledge of the species, quoting not only the botanical name, but also some named varieties, preferred conditions, and so-on. And a very, very few – understanding the significance of the ‘Flax’, have asked if we strip the long fibres from the leaves and spin them into a yarn : we answer – ‘The Maori’s had no easier alternative – but we do!’
Keeping the plants in good shape – removing dead or damaged leaves, flower stems leaning across paths – is heavy work. The long tough fibres that give the plant its extraordinary resilience also make it difficult to break up still-green leaves and flower-stems. We use a heavy-duty garden shredder – though even that often chokes on the toughest leaves. The job requires strength and technical know-how, and invariably seems to involve getting very dirty. Work that big J seems to love !!!
After a recent afternoon of NZF work, J showed me his hands (and lower arms) – stained a golden colour from handling the mash that remains after the shredding. ‘And that’s after soaking and scrubbing severeal times!’. That got us wondering …
Yesterday, with a number of the heaviest flower stems flailing across the drive and near the washing line, we decided to put them through the big Bosch crusher. After a trial of one flower stem processed as-cut, we pressed crushed material from various parts of the flower stem, and soon found that the colour was strongest in the seed pods and the bracts that carry them. We then continued processing stems and fruit separately, the stems going to the compost heap, and the crushed fruit into a dye bucket.
In the dyehouse, I’d already put four half-skeins of Cheviot wool, previously mordanted with Rhubarb, Alum, Iron, and Copper, to soak in water.
After boiling the berries for an hour or so, J and I poured the hot contents of the bucket through a sieve, returned the mahogany-brown dye liquor to the heat, and then immersed the four pre-mordanted, hydrated skeins.
Later, having rinsed the skeins thoroughly, here they are drying on the line.
You’ll see there’s scarce any difference between the four skeins – even though the difference between the skeins before dyeing was so obvious and characteristic of the mordant used. The explanation for this is that the concentration of dye liquor was so strong, and its ability to fix to the mordant so good, that the resulting colour completely overwhelms all other factors. That in turn suggests that the same batch of dye liquor could be used for successive dye-lots, each a shade paler than the previous lot, and each more characteristic of the mordant, too. The proof of that particular pudding will, however, have to wait for a future experiment : for now, we’re so pleased with this striking new colour that we’re happy to make more of the same intensity.
If we ever had any doubt that the value of New Zealand Flax as wind-break and ‘architectural’ features of the garden was insufficient to justify the hard work in keeping them in order, then that’s now completely dispelled. So too any guilt about not spinning the fibres and weaving them, or whatever. The ripe fruit are an extremely potent dye-stuff, and can be fixed easily using the liquor from rhubarb leaves.