I’ve had the chance to work with lots of different plants, at this point in my basket making journey, but my favourite above all others, has to be New Zealand Flax (Phormium Tenax).
I was missing working with these glorious fibres. My own plants are just babies and can’t be harvested yet, so I have relied on old leaves collected from around the base of plants that grow by our nearby beach and gifts, from those that know I use them.
This wasn’t a regular enough source for a plant that I wanted to work with more, so I put up a post in a local Facebook gardening group, to ask if anyone was tidying up their plants.
To my delight, two people got back to me, both in need of someone to help them, with their very large plants.
New Zealand Flax thrives in the Orkney Islands and like any plant that does well here, it has been planted everywhere! People often find themselves with plants that were planted as a windbreak, but are now blocking paths, making it difficult to cut the grass or are making it difficult for other plants to survive.
Properly cared for of course, none of these problems need to be an issue and I was very glad to help out in return for taking home new and old unwanted growth.
I visited the garden of a couple who had obviously put in an enormous amount of work, over the years. It was full of established and healthy plants of all kinds, but failing health was making it difficult to keep up with the work needed, to maintain such a garden.
It was really nice to be able to lend a hand and get one of the vast Phormium Tenax plants there, under control.
Carefully harvesting leaves from the outer sections of the fans, to reduce bulk; removing the old growth that was tangled in the base of the plant, to allow air to circulate and prevent disease. It looked a fine plant indeed, when I had finished and I felt very well paid to be taking home a big pile of leaves.
That was only the beginning of the work of course!
I stored the old growth in one of our outbuildings, to use when I run out of fresh. The fibres from the old brown leaves are just as good, but take a bit more work to process.
So I made a start on the fresh leaves, removing the top parts that are often used for weaving and adding those to my compost. The plants here have quite a short top section (where the leaf isn’t folded over on itself), but that doesn’t worry me, as I use the lower section for stripping fibres.
I begin by splitting the fused section apart and then using a wire brush to reveal the fibres. I am looking out for a better tool for this, as the juicy, pithy parts of the leaf mess up a wire brush quite quickly and then it is harder to use. I’ll let you know when I track down the perfect tool, but for now a wire brush will do.
Because of the time involved in fully processing the fibres, I stored most of the separated fibres for later use and did a second strip on a smaller batch, so that I could get started on some basketry.
I wet down the fibres briefly for the second strip, which involves running each individual fibre between my finger and thumbnail. This cleans away any of the remaining pith and after a quick rinse the fibres are left beautifully clean and ready for use.
It still amazes me how something so fine can be so strong and this is what makes these fibres so versatile. The colour is also part of what I love about it, ranging from a deep honey to pale auburn, it makes an eye-catching basket.
The individual fibres can be used for very fine coil work, because of their strength and are equally good for making cordage, twining and looping.
I think looping definitely deserves some more investigation, as I have only started playing around with it over the past couple of weeks and would like to find a way to give it more structure.
The loops appeal to me, perhaps because my eye is always drawn to lines from nature – the curve of the waves, the tendrils of vines. Not only that, but although it is not the same technique , I find looping reminiscent of coastal life, with the ever present nets and piles of creels, dotted around the shoreline.
For now though, I am busy working on a piece which is inspired by the humble limpet. But that’s another post!
So, I will be seizing every opportunity to gather more of this wonderful plant. There is so much that I want to try out with it, so much satisfaction to be found in the slow process of uncovering those fibres and using them to create something which is beautiful in its simplicity.
I will continue to work with a variety of plant fibres and yarns, but I think that I will always return to New Zealand Flax. It has become a trusted friend.
Could you tell me how to prepare the old growth for basket weaving?
Hi Emma, my apologies , I’ve only just spotted your comment. The old growth (the leaves that are already brown), are harder to process and I often find that there are more brittle fibres, so you don’t get as good a return for your efforts. However, there are times when that is all that’s available and the fibres that you do get, still make wonderful baskets.
You will only need to use the bottom half of the leaf blade. The part that’s usually folded over and fused together. Split this down the middle and leave to soak for about half an hour. If you’re using fresh leaves, you won’t need to soak them at this stage.
Use a fine comb, in firm strokes along the length of the leaf blade, to reveal the fibres. If the leaves have retted naturally, the fibres may already be partially exposed, but use the comb to loosen them.
Use you fingers to pull the fibres away. It’s a messy job and can stain your hands, although I find that this is much worse with fresh growth.
let the fibres dry out.
To clean them, soak for 15-30 mins and then run each individual fibre between forefinger and thumbnail. Rinse all the fibres thoroughly when you’re done.
I am in the middle of writing a step by step tutorial with photos, to explain the process with fresh leaves. It should be released sometime next week.
Best wishes, Jane.