Flax Milling (Linen)

Last Modified: 21-2-2019 7:17

Old Seddon flax mill
Old Seddon flax mill

With the build up of instability in the lead up to World War 2 Britain had become aware of the need for linen producers. By 1938 Russia had placed an embargo on all its exports and it appeared the Baltic nations would follow suite in the near future. This left only Belgium as a producer and since Germany was competing heavily for their production it was becoming increasingly difficult to obtain linen in any form. In 1939 Britain requested New Zealand and Australia to begin producing and milling flax. New Zealand responded in the first season with 200 acres in Woodend, near Rangiora and 10 acres in Blenheim. Despite an exceptionally dry season reasonable returns were experienced and in the following years many thousands of acres were grown and milled in both Marlborough and Canterbury.

The processing of linen flax involved uprooting plants and drying them, as with oats, then partially decomposing the straw in large tanks. This process, known as retting removed the organic material from the more durable fibres and wood. The retted straw was then passed under fluted rollers which separated the fibres from the wood and the remaining organic matter. Out of this process essentially came three products, high quality linen fibre, tow and wood which was used to power the factories.


At the end of the war all the Marlborough factories closed owing to low demand and increased pressure from cotton. This brought to an end an industry which for five years employed large numbers of staff labouring in the sweltering heat and choking dust of its mills.