The phormium tenax of naturalists. Its commercial name has been acquired from the circumstance of the natives of New Zealand employing it in the manufacture of their apparel, cordage, and all those purposes for which hemp and flax are used in other countries. The strength of its fibres, however, greatly exceeds those of the last-mentioned vegetable substances; and indeed, nearly approaches the tenacity of silk. Of this plant there are two sorts, - one becoming a red flower, the other a yellow. The leaves of both are similar to those of the common flax plant, but the flowers are smaller, and the clusters more numerous. The Zealanders obtain the flax from them by very simple and expeditious means. The fibres are beautifully fine, and white, shining like silk; the cordage made from it was found by our navigators to be very much stronger than any thing we could produce with hemp. With the view of introducing the growth of so valuable a plant in this country, Captain Ferneaux brought over some of the seeds, which were sown in Kew Gardens, by order of his late Majesty, but unfortunately failed.
Subsequent to this period, the culture has been very successfully pursued by our settlers in New South Wales. We are indebted to Mr. Wm. Salisbury, of Brompton, for the discovery of this identical plant, growing indigenously in the south of Ireland, where it flourishes luxuriously. This discovery will probably prove, ultimately, of the utmost importance to Ireland, where the poor may be profitably employed, both in the culture and subsequent manufacture. Mr. Salisbury observes, that plants of three years old, will, on an average, yield thirty-six leaves, besides a very considerable increase of off-sets; which leaves being cut down, at the time of clearing the quarters in the autumn, are found to spring up again in the following summer.
Respecting the produce, the same gentleman states, "Six leaves have produced me one ounce of fibres, when scutched perfectly clean and dry; at which, an acre of land planted with this crop, at three feet distance from plant to plant, will yield rather more than sixteen hundred weight per acre, which is a very great produce compared with that of hemp or flax. New Zealand flax may be scutched with little labour or trouble, and may be performed by persons in common. The leaves should be cut when full grown, and macerated for a few days in stagnant water, and then passed under a roller machine properly weighted; by this process the fibres become separated, and if washed in a running stream, will instantly become white. When the fibres are thus scutched clean and dry, any kind of friction will cause them to divide into any degree of fineness in the harle, so far even, as to cottonize; whereby it is fitted to all the purposes to which hemp and flax are adapted."
This plant is, at present, under cultivation in several parts of England and Wales. It will grow in either a moist or a dry soil; on a hill, or in a valley, but most luxuriously where there is an abundance of moisture.
New Zealand flax has at length become one of our established manufactures, and is now wrought into various articles of commerce; every improvement, therefore, in its preparation, that will economize the process, and extend its useful applications, is well deserving of record. Accordingly, we subjoin an account of the patent granted to Mr. J. Holt, jun. of Whitby, in Yorkshire, designed with those views.
In the manufacture of tarred cordage, the chief obstacle to the employment of that strong fibrous vegetable material, known by the term of New Zealand -flax, (but which also comes from Manilla, and other parts of the East,) has been the apparent impossibility of making the fibres absorb or unite with the preservative fluid. In consequence, the chief use of the New Zealand flax has been confined to the preparation of white cordage. The patentee informs us in his specification, that he has discovered that the ultimate fibres of the flax are combined and enclosed by a coating of adhesive matter, which requires the application of some chemical solvent to set the fibres at liberty, and adapt them to the reception of tar; and the solvent which effects this object completely and economically, he finds to be a weak solution of potash of soda. His process is as follows: -
The flax having been heckled and spun into yarn in the usual manner, is in a suitable state for the chemical procedure; which consists in immersing it in a solution of potash or soda, in the proportion of half an ounce of alkali to a gallon of water, which may be either hot or cold. When the flax has been thus submitted to the action of the alkali for forty-eight hours, it is to be taken out, wrung, and hung up to dry, either in the air or in a stove. When dried, the flax will be found adapted to imbibe the tar as readily, and hold it as firmly, as the hemp in ordinary use; in performing which process, and all that may be subsequent, the rope manufacturer need make no variation from his accustomed proceedings. There is likewise included in Mr. Holt's patent, some improved mechanical apparatus for depriving the New Zealand flax of the bark and skin with which it is found combined in the commercial state. A kind of grating, made either of iron or wood, is provided, consisting of a range of parallel bars, the whole forming a right-angled parallelogram, having its two opposite longest sides inclosed by vertical boards.
The bars in their transverse section are tapered, with their narrow ends or sides placed upwards in this frame; but another similar frame of bars, which is made to fit and pass over the former, has its bars with the narrow ends or sides downwards; which arrangement gives the respective frames of bars a tendency to interlock in the same manner as toothed wheels; and, therefore, when the raw flax is spread upon the lower frame of parallel bars, and the upper frame duly loaded, is laid over the flax, and passed backwards and forwards, a powerful and uniform rubbing action is produced upon the flax, which opens the fibres, while it separates the bark and other extraneous matter, which falls through the bar of the lower fixed frame, and is collected underneath. For the convenience of supplying the flax to the lower frame, the latter is at the middle divided into two portions or flaps, which open like the lids of boxes, but meet together when down with serrated teeth, for the purpose (we suppose) of holding the flax in its place whilst being rubbed.