Saturday, 13 August 2016

Harakeke and more harakeke


Phormium tenax or harakeke


Harakeke (Phormium tenax and Phormium cookianum) is also known as New Zealand flax. It is not related to the common flax (Linum usitatissimum), but because it has long fibres in the blade (leaves) and could be used to make ropes and fabrics it was named flax by the European settlers. It has been used for many purposes by the Maori. Indeed, Judy Te Hiki, my tutor at the Kaipatiki Project papermaking day explained that it was the many properties and uses of harakeke which allowed the original Maori settlers to survive in NZ when their imported plants failed to thrive in the harsher climate here (in comparison to their more tropical origins), and was a major export for New Zealand at one stage.

We have plenty of the raw material in our garden so it seemed right to take the opportunity to learn more about the plant and recently I have had the pleasure of taking part in two workshops, both making different uses of the harakeke.

The first course was papermaking held at the Kaipatiki Project in Beach Haven near Auckland. The Kaipatiki project organises many eco-friendly events and workshops which I am always keen to get to if I can. On this day we learned how to harvest the blade sustainably and for the continued health of the plant, and many of the traditions which should be observed when working with the flax. For instance, pregnant women are not supposed to work the flax (it is tapu or forbidden) as they are considered as food because they are a food source for their baby and you do not mix food and harakeke! My suspicion is that this particular tradition was developed by pregnant women themselves in order to get out of doing some hard physical work!!
 
For papermaking, we shredded the blades on a stick with nails (nailboard) in, chopped them into small sections, boiled them for a couple of hours and blended them in a strong food processor. To speed up the process, we used some fibres which had been boiled on previous courses and had then been left to sit in a barrel of water. A little strongly smelling I have to say! (Our boiled pulp will be used by people on the next course). 

Judy explains about the harakeke and how to harvest it


Judy using the nailboard to shred the blades.

And chopping the fibres. Though scissors worked too.

The pulp was then added to a vat of water and using a deckle to catch the fibres we created the sheets of paper. In essence, this is the same as any other paper making and for stronger papers I would probably add in other fibres. 

Rinsing the stored pulp - a stinky job for me!

Pulp ready to add to the water vat
Judy showing us how to use a deckle


Removing excess water

A sheet of paper ready for drying

However, it is a beautifully textured surface and I might well be using some in my future pieces. We could also have a go at making a bowl and biodegradable plant pots.

 
A table full of paper at the end of the day
 Though it wasn't actually used in paper making, pounding the blades can also be done to begin the process of separating the 'muka' or fibres from the other plant material. I enjoyed the textures in the fibres which were created just by doing this. I am not sure how they will dry, but it is worth an experiment I think.

Pounded harakeke blade

A kauri harakeke beater -very efficient, and easier than the traditional 'patu muka' or beating stone.

The pounded blades laid in a woven pattern

The second course was with Kath Stevenson at her shop in Warkworth where she makes and sells her woven harakeke baskets and sculptures. 

Getting started. Kath and I. You can see some of her sculptures and baskets in the background.
During this morning we prepared the blades for weaving, then gradually wove a basket. I was shown how to make a beautiful plaited edge and by shredding the remaining sections of the blade, how to use these to make plaited decorations, handles and decorative hairy edges. There are of course many variations and much more complicated variations on the basket weaving and edging, but I was very pleased to have created a practical and beautiful basket.

Choosing, preparing and cleaning the blades

Exposing the 'boomerang', and beginning the weaving


Got to get this part right!


The base all woven, tightened and ready to start shaping into a basket.

Kath showing me how to work up the sides


All woven and ready for the finishing edge to be created

Making the plait at the top was so clever. Hope I can remember how to do this again!

Shredding and plaiting the muka

Making a long plait by adding in extra blades. Neat trick!

Basket complete

It will gradually dry, losing its green tones and become a strong basket in a natural golden colour. I have discovered this morning that the cat seems to like chewing at these hairy bits, so I will have to find a place she can’t reach whilst the basket dries!

A great big thank you to Judy and Kath for your time and expertise. I should really have been working on my exhibition pieces for October, but hey …
Back to it now!

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