Designing the Future – Celebrating the Past

June 2011

The Waitangi Mill where the flax stripping invention was installed, for which New Zealand’s first ever patent was granted. (Photo: 7-A2820 (circa 1860) Sir George Grey Special Collection, Auckland Libraries)
The Waitangi Mill where the flax stripping invention was installed, for which New Zealand’s first ever patent was granted. (Photo: 7-A2820 (circa 1860) Sir George Grey Special Collection, Auckland Libraries)

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the grant of New Zealand’s first patent. NZ Patent No. 1, for a plant fiber dressing process and leaf-stripping machine used to manufacture rope and woven fabric, was granted to flax milling business partners, Arthur Guyon Purchas and James Ninnis in 1861.

Special legislation – the Purchas and Ninnis Flax Patent Act, 1860 – was introduced to enable the Governor to grant the patent. The specification, entitled “An invention for the preparation of the fiber of Phorium tenax and other plants for manufacturing purposes”, was deposited at the Colonial Secretary’s Office in Auckland, New Zealand on October 10, 1860, and the Letters Patent were subsequently issued on March 26, 1861.

International recognition came when both inventors were awarded a medal for flax fiber prepared using their New Zealand patented process at the London World Exposition of 1862.

Flax mill operations

Purchas and Ninnis built a mill on the Waitangi stream in the North Island where leaves were stripped by grooved iron beating plates. Stream water circulated by the mill wheel removed plant waste. They produced 90 tons of native swamp flax fiber using the patented process before the mill was closed for a time when fighting broke out between the colonial settlers and Waikato Māori. Ninnis then moved to Kaiapoi in New Zealand’s South Island to set up milling operations there.

On July 11, 1866, the Timaru Herald reported that 47 bales of dressed flax manufactured under the Purchas and Ninnis patented process had sold for NZ£37 per ton. It is not known how long the Purchas and Ninnis flax mill operations lasted, or how profitable they were.

The men behind the patent

Dr. Arthur Guyon Purchas (1821-1906)
Arthur Purchas, a doctor, clergyman and musician with wide-ranging interests sailed to New Zealand from England in 1846. After serving the Parish of St. Peter’s Onehunga for some 28 years, in 1875 he resumed medical practice. A respected member of the Auckland province colonial community, he learned the Māori language and helped foster respect and understanding between the local Māori and colonists. As musical director for the New Zealand Anglican Diocese, he produced two national hymnals, including some of his own works with English and Māori lyrics. After retiring as a vicar, he continued to teach music to the blind and even invented a speedy method for preparing metal plates to print Braille.

Captain James Ninnis (1809 – 1879)
An English mining engineer, Captain Ninnis went to New Zealand to run the copper mine on Kawau Island in 1844. When his contract expired, he managed the copper mine on Great Barrier Island until it was abandoned by the mining company in 1851. The Ninnis family then settled in Onehunga where, in 1860, the favorable business partnership between Purchas and Ninnis began. Captain Ninnis is credited with designing the machinery driven by the water wheel at the Waitangi Mill and setting up a second flax mill at Kaiapoi.


Early government support

Dual thread rope-making bobbin
(Photo: New Zealand Historic
Places Trust Pouhere Taonga)

Processing flax to extract its natural fiber was a labor-intensive process. Dressing flax by hand involved using mussel shells to strip away fiber from the upper leaf surface. Mechanical strippers produced a coarser fiber extracted from the whole leaf. One machine could produce 250 kg of fiber in the time it took a skilled Māori contracted worker to yield just 1 kg.

New Zealand flax fiber competed well with other imported manila rope1 and jute materials in Australia, Great Britain and North America. A small quantity of dressed flax was processed in New Zealand and sold as spun cordage or industrial strength woven fabric for tarpaulins and bales.x

The New Zealand government was keen to encourage innovation and enterprise by granting patents for new inventions and offering export and manufacturing incentives for thriving local industries. By 1870, ten years after the granting of that first patent, there were 161 flax mills with 1,766 workers – most were located near flax swamps and employed between 20 and 30 ‘flaxies’.

Foxton flax stripping museum
Foxton is the only museum in the world with a working flax stripping machine. The dressed swamp flax processed by the museum is still supplied to furniture makers and used for packing and Māori crafts.


Designing the future

Harakeke (swamp flax) remains an important sustainable natural resource. Research and development continues to focus on fiber extraction technology, biocomposite textile and plastics manufacture, biofuel production, and breeding of new harakeke plant varieties.

Piupu (flax skirt) featuring a tāniko
extending down behind the
individual pokinikini (Photo: New
Zealand Historic Places Trust
Pouhere Taonga)

Harakeke oil is rich in omega 3, 6 and 9 unsaturated fatty acids. Cold press extracted, the oil is mainly used in health food products, hypoallergenic soaps and cosmetics. Both the oil and seeds are used for animal feed and have potential for high-grade biofuel production.

Harakeke gel is used by the cosmetic industry as a skincare ingredient. It is harvested from the base of cut leaf blades and has been shown to increase skin collagen and elastin levels within 48 hours of application.

Harakeke plants are tough, frost-hardy and grow well in a wide range of climates. Florists and gardeners value these clumping perennials for their long-lasting and flexible sword-like leaves and dramatic, bird-attracting, nectar-filled flower spikes. Plant breeders continue to produce ornamental cultivars in an extraordinary range of green, bronze and yellow leaf hues.

New Zealanders take pride in preserving and improving traditional flax weaving methods. Māori weaving can be distinguished by technique and purpose. These techniques and their products include raranga (plaiting/weaving), whatu (twining), whiri (cordage plaiting) and tukutuku (woven decorative house panels). Woven flax can be decorated with short lengths of dyed twisted muka (fine flax fiber), feathers and shells - especially paua (New Zealand abalone). Contemporary weavers mix natural and synthetic materials and use traditional and new weaving techniques to create new woven fabrics, tāniko decorative borders and products.

The National New Zealand Flax collection

The harakeke plant (Photo: New Zealand
Historic Places Trust Pouhere Taonga)

Landcare Research, one of the New Zealand Crown Research Institutes, maintains a collection of 50 harakeke plants selected for their muka or raranga qualities. Harakeke samples are distributed on request to marae, schools, weavers and community groups wishing to establish a weaving resource.

1  Manila rope is a type of rope made from fibers obtained from the leaves of the abaca (Musa textilis), a species of banana native to the Philippines. The name refers to the capital of the Philippines, one of the main producers of abaca.

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